Welcome Victor

To begin with, I think in the end I wanted the Sox to trade for Roy Halladay. Brad Penny is inconsistent, Smoltz has yet to pan out, and Bucholz is just as hit-or-miss. Adding Halladay would’ve made our starting rotation almost unbeatable, especially come playoff time. But if we couldn’t get him, I’m glad nobody else got him. If he’d gone to the Yankees, it would’ve meant the division and possibly the World Series. The fact that they didn’t get him, while on the one hand speaking to the strength of their existing rotation, suggests that maybe the Yankees just don’t have the prospects left in their farm system to acquire a player like Roy Halladay. And without him, I still think the Sox can catch and eventually overtake the Yankees. The division is still within striking distance, especially with ten games left against the Yankees (whom the Sox are a nifty 8-0 against this season), and the playoffs in general look very good for the Sox. I think this will be another season that goes deep into October.

Now onto the actual trade. I don’t know all that much about Victor Martinez, truth be told, although the little I’ve seen of him suggests he’ll make an excellent addition to the Sox battery. He brings a number of positive traits to the Red Sox. He hits better than Adam LaRoche, who I am a little sorry to see go, redundant as he became. He can play first base, allowing us to still provide relief for Mike Lowell and give Youk the occassional day off, much as he might not want to take it. Most importantly, the Sox have finally have an offensive catcher. I love Varitek, and he might call a better game than Victor Martinez, but Martinez hits way better than Varitek does. This allows us to pinch hit him in games when he doesn’t play. It also gives us a veteran backup catcher. George Kottaras still has a lot to learn about game-calling and team leadership, and so far he seems to have made a number of mistakes. Look at most of the teams bigger losses and near-losses, and you’ll see Kottaras behind the plate. I’m sure he is trying as hard as he can, he just isn’t learning as quickly as a playoff-bound team might need. He does a great job catching Wakefield, but Doug Mirabelli knew a lot more about controlling a game and doing all of the things a catcher needs to do to lead a team to victory. And it is as much about the catcher as it is about the pitcher. That’s why the Japanese word for catcher translates roughly to “pitcher’s wife.” The pitcher and catcher are a team, and most of the responsibility for victory or defeat falls to them. So far, George Kottaras has not shown he is ready to be partners with the major league caliber pitchers that he is working with. Someday he will be, at least in a back-up role. But the Red Sox need someone who can help their team win right now, and Victor Martinez provides a much better option at one of the most important positions in baseball.

An analysis of an inning

I only managed to catch an inning and a half of tonight’s Red Sox victory (not by choice this time) and I figured I’d take an in-depth look at what I saw. Specifically, Manny Delcarmen’s pitch selection through his 1-2-3 inning of work. His first batter was as easy as it could get: one pitch, one out. Bobby Crosby bats right handed, Manny Delcarmen throws right handed. This is always to the pitcher’s advantage because the ball tends to move towards the end of the baseball bat. So Delcarmen simply went with a fastball away and got Crosby to swing at it. Easy out.

The next batter was Eric Patterson, a lefty hitter. Delcarmen started him off with a fastball, down and away. This is a good starting pitch because it moves the ball away from the hitter’s wheelhouse and again keeps the ball at the end of the bat, where outs are more likely. Manny followed that up with two balls, both down. The first was a breaking ball away, probably trying to get him to chase an off-speed pitch thrown to the same area of the plate that he had just seen called for a strike. He missed his location, but he had a pitch to waste after all. When he missed with that, he went back to the fastball and went inside on Patterson. My guess here is that he was mostly working to keep the eye level of the batter focused down to make any future pitches thrown higher harder to hit. He then proceeded to do just that, getting Patterson to watch a strike up and in. He then went for the strikeout with a curveball down and in, keeping Patterson guessing as to what part of the plate he would throw to. He fouled it off, so Manny just went back to the fastball going up and inside to get him to ground out to the shortstop. The key to success here was constantly moving between outside and inside, up and down.

The last batter was Adam Kennedy, another left-handed batter. Delcarmen missed with his first two pitches, both fastballs that were too high. He generally kept to the inside part of the plate. I’m not sure why he started inside this time, although keeping the ball high and inside takes it out of the lefty’s wheelhouse, minimizing the chance of a big hit. He stayed up with the next pitched and this time he hit his spot, going outside this time. I don’t know the batting percentages for Kennedy, but my guess is that he has more of an uppercut style swing that makes throwing low to him dangerous (think David Ortiz and how dangerous it is to throw low and inside to him). The count was now 2-1, kind of a hitters count, but not really. The last pitch was just a straight fastball down the pike, probably designed to challenge Kennedy and see if he could hit it. While he made contact with it, he didn’t get nearly enough it, rolling a grounder towards first that LaRoche was able to field cleanly and flip to Delcarmen for the final out. This at-bat was mostly about staying out of the power areas of the hitter’s zone. It was also a reminder that the best hitters in baseball fail 7 times out of 10, and this was just one of those times for Adam Kennedy.

Objectivity vs Fandom

So I’ve hit a bit of a stumbling block in this whole blogging process, and it’s raised a very interesting question for me: can you be a fan and a legitimate reporter (not that I’m claiming to be one) at the same time? I began this blog to practice writing about sports in the hopes of starting an eventual career in it. But I can’t help but be a Boston sports fan, giving preference to Boston sports in my viewing and writing choices. Right now, Boston sports equals the Boston Red Sox, and the Red Sox aren’t playing very well. A number of players are in hitting slumps, and the pitching seems to be off-again, on-again. Beckett and Lester are pitching well, but Penny and Smoltz are not and Bucholz is 50-50 in his two starts so far. The Sox lost 5 of 6 games on their road trip and are in the process of losing to Baltimore as I write this blog entry (even though they could certainly come back). As a fan, it was very difficult for me to sit and watch these games, or even look up the box scores, in order to write about them. Hence my number of blog entries have diminished per week. As a fan trying to write about his favorite team, it becomes very easy to share in the slump that a team is going through. My last post was about the Adam LaRoche deal as much because I couldn’t write about the game that night as it was about the merits of the deal itself. And today I’m tackling a larger issue in writing that could be applied to any subject and its journalists (I’m sure news journalists at some point in their careers have trouble reporting on depressing news).

It would seem that writing objectively about a team you care about is impossible. And yet I hold out hope that as I become more of an experienced writer, I will learn to distance myself from the teams that I care about, at least for the duration of the sports event and the time it takes to report on it. Objectivity may not be possible, not in the purest sense of the word, but detachment is still something I think one can teach oneself in order to become a better writer and reporter.

The obvious question is: why not report on other teams or sport cities? I’ve always believed that passion drives achievement, especially in any sort of artistic endeavor. Writing is no exception. While I’m passionate about sports as a general concept, there’s no doubt in my mind that my real passion lies in Boston, my hometown, and its teams. I believe I would have as much difficulty writing about non-Boston teams as I would about Boston teams who are playing badly. So as a novice writer I face the same conflict every time I sit down to write: how do I balance my love for the subject matter with the need to write about no matter what? Hopefully in my journey as a writer I will someday find the answer.

Thoughts on Adam LaRoche

So the Sox traded for Adam LaRoche today. They didn’t have to give up too much, just a couple of prospects I’ve never heard of. In return they got a player with good power numbers who can play first and third but has a tendency to strike out a lot. Frankly, I think this was a good, safe trade. It wasn’t the Garret Atkins or Michael Young deal that people really wanted, but it kinda helps them answer one of their big issues: who can play third? LaRoche can play both first and third base, which means a number of good things for the Sox: they can give Lowell enough days off to rest that aging hip of his; they can give Youkilis a day off every once in awhile without sacrificing production; they don’t need to rely on Mark Kotsay quite as much to act as their back up corner infielder. These are all very good things. The downside to LaRoche is how much he strikes out. This, however, is a problem I notice with many members of the team, such as J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, Nick Green, and Jason Bay. Bringing in a power hitter who strikes out a fair amount doesn’t really change up the nature of the offense in a negative way because this team is already establishing itself as a simultaneous run and strike-out producing team. Plenty of teams do fine offensively like this, such as the Texas Rangers, but the Sox have the pitching to overcome a lot of strikeouts. And adding LaRoche may add a spark back into the Sox lineup.

Meanwhile, the prospects we gave up weren’t particularly important. If we gave up a Bucholz or a Bowden I’d be upset, but the two we gave up are not prime prospects. This means that the pieces necessary to claim the big prize- Roy Halladay- are still there should the Sox choose to actively pursue him. And as the Sox continue to struggle offensively, I’m beginning to think they should. The Yankees are blazing right now, and the Sox can’t rely on other teams to beat them in order to hold onto the division. If the Sox want the division, they need to go out and win it for themselves. The best way to do this is to trade Penny and open up the spot necessary to bring in Roy Halladay. Then three pitchers out of five will be phenomenal, and if Wake comes back healthy that leaves just one weaker spot in the pitching rotation. And considering that weak spot is John Smoltz, that’s not all that week at all.

In other news, the Sox traded Lugo for outfielder Chris Duncan. He’s a minor league player, but at least the Sox got SOMETHING in return for one of the most overpaid players in recent history. Lugo’s tenure with the Sox was just shy of a disaster, and Theo Epstein made the right decision in designating him for assignment. Getting anything in return for him is just gravy.

Walks, Barajas Prove Costly

Blue Jays 3, Red Sox 1. Well that was a bit of a disappointment. Overall, I thought Lester didn’t exactly pitch badly. His curveball curved, he hit 95 mph on his fastball with ease, his delivery looked pretty good. His consistency was the problem, and it seemed like he really struggled with first pitch strikes. Not only that, but whenever he failed to throw a first-pitch strike he had real trouble finding his rhythm again. This led to a season high for walks. More troubling was the return of the one bad inning problem that plagued Lester early on. He only really had one bad inning, and it was the second. Half of his walks came during that inning alone. After that, it was just one hit from Rod Barajas that drove in the tying and winning runs. How unfortunate, but how very like Lester’s early outings. Hopefully this was just a case of being off for a few days and being a little out of sync. Lester is one of our top pitchers, and we need him to step un in these situations, not step back. Roy Halladay stepped up huge today, and Lester just wasn’t quite up to answering him.

Today, the Sox just ran into a great pitcher having a good game. Roy Halladay is an amazing pitcher. Watching him, I started warming up to the notion of him being on our team, even at the cost (which will be steep). At the very least, I don’t want to see him go to the Yankees under any circumstances. A combination of Pettite, Halladay, Sabathia and Burnett is scary. I have no doubt that such a rotation would get the Yankees the division and make them almost unbeatable come the playoffs, especially with an offense that, truth be told, is more potent than the Red Sox’s. So if the Sox can’t get him, they should at least make such an offer that the Yankees have to badly cripple themselves for a few years to sign him. Otherwise I see another huge contract and another bunch of years of Yankee dominance.

Offensively, I thought today was a mixed bag. Youkilis and Pedroia looked great, each having multi-hit games. Meanwhile, I thought Ortiz and Bay put good swings on the ball, even though all they had to show for it was a lone RBI. Kotsay had a lone hit and a nice stolen base. The rest of the offense looked pretty anemic against Halladay’s high quality pitching. Drew and Varitek especially seemed content to swing at the first pitch and make a quick out every time. Ellsbury did nothing and Nick Green did just as much nothing. Honestly, I don’t believe Green should be starting much now that Lowrie is back. I like Nick Green (he made a nice defensive play early in the game), but the Sox have to answer the question of do they have a solid shortstop for the 2009 season. They can’t do that in the two weeks before the trade deadline if they don’t give Lowrie every chance to play possible.

Ultimate Analysis

I missed yesterday’s baseball game, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about my favorite sport to actually play: Ultimate Disc (sometimes called Ultimate Frisbee). There are three offenses in Ultimate Frisbee, and in this post I’m going to analyze all three of them and discuss the relative merits of each. The first is your standard vertical stack offense: Players make a vertical line going down the field and then proceed to cut in and out in tandem with one another. An alternative to this is the horizontal stack, where you have a line of handlers in the backfield (3) and a line of cutters upfield, both in lines running perpendicular to the sideline. Lastly, you have the zone offense, where you have 3 handlers in the backfield, two poppers moving through the middle of the field, and two wings moving up and down the sidelines.

Vertical stack (vert) is the traditional offense, and for good reason. You take the half of the field the defense gives you amd you work with it as best you can. If you can beat the defender, you have pretty much the entire forced-side of the field to work with. The main reason to run vert is that if you have good enough handlers, you actually can use BOTH sides of the field to run your offense. A handler who can either break the mark or dump it to another handler on the break side will open up the other half of the field, the half the defenders upfield are not covering. Once you’ve done this, the whole field is yours, and you can usually gain half to three quarters of the field before the defense has time to reset. The problem is that if you can’t get to the breakside, you’re stuck with at best half of the field, and the defenders are positioned to always have a half step on you, no matter what you do. All in all, I don’t like vert as much as horizontal (ho-stack) or zone because you tend to get too much of people cutting each other off, and you really only have one viable cutting lane, whereas with the other two offenses you have two to four.

Horizontal stacking is the less traditional one-on-one offense, and that means defenders won’t be used to it. This always gives the offense an advantage. The four upfield cutters try to work opposite to each other, like engine pistons, one moving away as the one beside him moves in. Generally, this isolates the cutter and gives him more space to work with. All you need are three handlers capable of breaking the mark. This is where ho-stacking becomes more complicated, because you have to field a team with enough handlers to make up the backfield. The center handler must be excellent, and the side handlers must be at the very least capable of duming the disc back towards the center before they get stalled out. If they can make upfield passes all the better, but since the outside cutters tend to move away from the disc, the outside handlers should really be throwing upfield only if they can huck (throw long distance). The isolation element of this makes it the more viable offense, in my opinion, but it requires more from your team and takes three very solid players to make work.

Zone offense also requires more handlers than vert stacking (3), but here you have the advantage that if no one is open upfield, you have an open throw to another handler every time (unless the cup shifts to cut off swing passes, in which case a popper HAS to be open up-field somewhere). With ho-stacking, that handler will be covered. Zone offense trades off vertical movement for lateral movement, though, because it’s really difficult to throw it deep in zone conditions (windy) and the defensive cup is designed to shut down the necessary passing lanes that the poppers can move into. It also requires extreme patience by the handlers, more so than with either linear stacks, since players will be open far less often, and dumping and swining will often be the only option available.

All in all, I like horizontal stacking the best. It has zone’s lateral movement but gives you more passing lanes than either zone or vertical and allows for better isolation for the cutters at any given moment. Toss in the unexpectedness of it and you have Ultimate Disc’s most effective offense.

Buch off, Blue Jays

Red Sox 4, Blue Jays 1.

Well, you can’t ask for a much better start to the second half of the season than what we got last night. Among the highlights of the night:

1) Kevin Youkilis hit a two-run homer.

2) David Ortiz continued to improve with a key 2 RBI double.

3) The Sox beat a great young pitcher in Ricky Romero.

4) Papelbon picked up another save.

5) I got to see Daniel Bard pitch.

6) Most importantly, Clay Bucholz shined in his first major league start of 2009. He went 5 2/3 innings, struck out 3, and only gave up 1 run. All of his pitches looked major-league ready, especially a great fastball at 95 mph and a pretty nifty change-up that was about 10-15 mph slower. He was able to throw all of his pitches for strikes, and he was excellent at throwing first-pitch strikes throughout his outing. I thought he looked consistently good throughout the evening, loads better than he did in 2008. And that means two things for the Red Sox: he can pitch well for us in the years to come, or he can be used as trade bait to net us a really good player.

I liked that the Sox went with Bucholz to start the second half, especially considering it was in Toronto. Any trade for Doc Halladay would have to include Clay Bucholz, so this was an excellent way to show off what he can do to the Blue Jays and their fans. In some ways it was a courtesy, since now a trade won’t sting so bad for the fans, having seen what they’ll be getting in return. I still don’t believe a trade for Halladay is in the long term interest of the Red Sox organization, but I’m beginning to see that this Red Sox team is 95% of a World Series caliber team. They’re still weak at shortstop (no longer at 3rd if Lowell can stay health and productive), but otherwise they’re very good. Adding a pitcher as dominant as Halladay probably would get them a championship this year, and it HAS been almost two years since any Boston sports team won anything (I’m being tounge-in-cheek here). The thought of a playoff rotation of Lester, Beckett, Halladay and Wakefield (probably) kind of makes me salivate a little bit. Couple that with a dynamic offense that’s strong at least 1-6 or 7 (Tek and Green are really the only weaker hitters left) and you probably have a World Series title, at least on paper. And as a fan, I wouldn’t mind seeing that, not one bit.

Playing Favre-its

In my opinion, there’s nothing sadder than when a celebrity doesn’t know when to quit. We see it all the time with rock stars. The Rolling Stones still tour, but at this point they’re so old that at best they sound like a cover band of their former selves. Despite continuing to come out with new albums every couple of years, no one can say U2 is anywhere near as talented, creative, or mesmerizing as they used to be. And Brett Michaels just looks pathetic on VH1. Actors are the same way, and it’s given rise to shows like “the Surreal Life,” a show which single-handedly dropped America’s IQ a point or two with its blatant and unabashed stupidity. ESPN’s Bill Simmons once described the phenomenon as when someone does Plan A for as long as they can, then continues to do Plan A long after they’re really able to because they can’t come up with a good Plan B.

The same thing, I fear, can be said of Brett Favre. He continues to refuse to hang it up, and it gets sadder and sadder with each passing year.  The only person I’ve ever called my hero is my father, but when I was a kid the closest thing I could say I had to a sports hero was Brett Favre. He was a great teammate. He reinvigorated the Green Bay Packers franchise (the only team I rooted for as a young boy, since my parents were from Milwaukee and hated baseball). He was unbelievably talented, yet he had a twinge of inconsistency that always made him exciting to watch. This was a different kind of excitement than the kind engendered by players like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, who are nothing but consistent. They’re also fun to watch (even though I hate Peyton Manning with a passion), but it’s not the same as the wild excitement of a young Brett Favre. Most importantly to me as a kid, Brett Favre loved to play football, and he always had a huge smile on his face whenever he played. A smile like that couldn’t help but make other people smile. He loved to play the game, and he was great at it, and the world loved to watch him play. I even rooted for him over the New England Patriots in the 1996 Super Bowl.

But, unfortunately, a combination of his love of the game and his inability to figure out the next stage in his life has kept him from doing what he really ought to do: hang up his cleats and call it a career. The Hall of Fame is ready and waiting to honor him with induction, they just need him to stay off the field for a few years. And let’s face it: Favre isn’t what he used to be. I wouldn’t even call him that good of a quarterback anymore. His completion percentage last year: a mere 65.7%. He had as many interceptions as touchdowns, with a passer rating of just 81. He wasn’t even in the top 20 for that category. Favre is burning through all of the love and credibility he built up in his heyday with every year that he refuses to retire, and honestly it just makes me sad.

Thoughts from St. Louis

(I wasn’t actually there)

1) Congrats to Carl Crawford. He made a spectacular play to rob Brad Hawpe of a home run and that alone is probably enough to merit the MVP award. I frankly thought it should go to Curtis Granderson (how often do you see a triple? Plus he scored the game-winning run), but Crawford makes a fine choice.

2) I understand why Beckett and Wakefield never got into the game. Beckett is a starting pitcher and you only really need those for about 5 innings at an All-Star Game. Wakefield is a knuckleball pitcher, and none of the All-Star catchers had much experience catching him before. Putting him in would’ve been a risky move, one that could easily have cost the AL the game if a passed ball or two were to occur. Plus, when the knuckleball is flat, it’s easy to crush, and the NL had plenty of power hitters who could tee off on it (think Pujols, Fielder, Howard, and Gonzalez, just name a few). I also understand that as a fellow AL East manager, Joe Maddon probably didn’t want to risk injury to AL East pitchers for fear of being seen as trying to wear them out on purpose. Having said all that, I still would’ve liked to see Beckett and Wakefield actually get to pitch. I’m sure being an All-Star is an honor in itself, but Beckett is such a fierce competitor that it must’ve been hard on him not getting to actually play. And this will probably be Wakefield’s only trip to the Midsummer Classic, barring another phenomenal start to a season.

3) The AL continued its dominance of the NL, and at this point it’s starting to get a little ridiculous. Why is the AL so much better? The AL hitters are only marginally better than the NL ones, I think, as evidenced by the one or two run differences between the two in most recent All Star games. A serious discrepancy in offensive talent I think would manifest itself in higher scores, even against All-Star pitching. But it’s just a run or two, so the answer must lie with the pitching. And quite honestly, I think that’s the correct argument. Even though he didn’t pitch great, I think Roy Halladay is the best pitcher out there right now, better than anything the NL could muster. And you go from that to the phenomenal Zack Greinke, a workhorse like Mark Buerhle, then Edwin Jackson, then Felix Hernandez. That lineup runs the gamut of hot shot young pitching to cagey veteran. The NL’s counter of Lincecum, Franklin (a reliever I know), Haren and Billingsley just doesn’t stack up. And then once you get to relievers, there’s not much better you can do than Papelbon, Rivera and Joe Nathan. The AL has the far superior pitching, and I think that goes league-wide. Some of that has to do with the AL having more large-market teams (higher salaries), and some of it has to do with pitchers not wanting to hit, but it seems like pitching is just far superior in the AL. Maybe it’s because it HAS to be, with the superior, if only slightly, offensive teams in the AL.

Well, I didn’t get to see most of my Red Sox, but it won’t matter if they get the benefit of the AL win by going to the World Series and getting home field advantage.

Should we trade for Roy Halladay?

So that’s the question everyone is asking, or at least one of the big ones: is Doc Halladay worth trading for? There are a number of good reasons to justify trading for him: he has 10 wins; he’s an All-Star, the starting pitcher no less; he’s in the prime of his career; he has a sick ERA of 2.85. Maybe the most importantly, the Yankees will probably try to get him. While I don’t think they have the package of prospects necessary to sign him, it doesn’t mean they won’t try, especially with the problems they’re having in their starting rotation (the first one rhymes with “Chien-Ming Bong,” the second with “Mandy Pettite”). And personally, I love to see the Red Sox screw the Yankees at every turn. I honestly loved the Eric Gagne signing, as disastrous as it turned out to be, because I knew how much the Yankees wanted a reliever, and seeing them get screwed gives me what the principal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer called “a tingly feeling.” So there are clearly a number of good reasons to trade for Doc Halladay.

The question is how much will we have to give away. It’s obviously gonna cost us quite a bit to get a pitcher as good as Halladay, especially since the Blue Jays are a divisional rival and will be less than eager to see their ace pitching against them on a routine basis. I think the package we’d have to give would start with Clay Bucholz. Then they’d probably want some more of our pitching prospects, either Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard, or maybe both. And they might want a positional player like Jed Lowrie or Lars Anderson. In any event, we’d be taking a chunk out of the Red Sox’s future to sign a player we can’t guarantee will stay with us beyond the next year.

Quite frankly, I don’t think Roy Halladay is worth it. I like Clay Bucholz a lot, and I really see potential in him. If he can develop into the pitcher I think he can, then the Sox will have a powerful weapon in their rotation for the next bunch of years at a fraction of the cost that Doc Halladay would. And as I’ve commented before (in my only other post), watching Daniel Bard pitch is one of my favorite sports-related things to do. He can throw 99 mph and then switch to an 85 mph change-up, and he already has pretty good command of both. Jed Lowrie seems like he would make a competent shortstop, which has always been Theo Epstein’s Achilles heel. Seriously, haven’t we had like a half-dozen different shortstops in as many years? If Lowrie works out (and anything would be better than Julio Lugo), then at least we don’t have to watch Epstein spend too much on a bad shortstop yet again.

So we’d be giving up way too much to get just one pitcher in return, as good as he might be. And then there’s the problem of what to do with him. Unless the Sox can get rid of Penny and keep Daisuke in the minors, I don’t see how the Sox could even find a spot for him in the starting rotation. The Sox have a gluttony of pitchers (a wonderful problem to have), and adding another one, even a great one, would just be adding to the problem. If we have to give up prospects, I’d rather give up fewer than the three or four necesary to get Halladay and address the problems the Sox have at shortstop and first/third (depending on where Youk plays). Here’s hoping Wake rocks the All-Star Game (and all the other sox All-Stars as well)!