It is very much true that poor pitching is the main culprit for why the 2011 Boston Red Sox are off to its most awful start in decades and have the worst record in baseball at 2-9 coming into tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays (which has just been postponed due to rain in Boston). Who’s at fault for the gross number of runs given up? Most of the starting staff, including John Lackey (who gave up nine runs to Texas last week) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (who surrendered seven the other day) along with the gawd awful bullpen, of course. Certainly, manager Terry Francona, nor upper management can be blamed for putting on the field the one part of the Red Sox team this year that was supposed to be its strength (the pitching).
The offense too, has been well below par, and again, it’s up to the veterans on the team to right the ship. But what Francona can be blamed for is his lineups. New Sox star left fielder Carl Crawford (2011 to date: .152 BA, .204 OBP and 2 SB in 46 at-bats) is a notorious slow starter, with a .274 career average for March/April, the lowest average of any month in his career, which until this year was spent entirely with the Rays.
So what has Francona been doing lately? He’s been giving him MORE at-bats to struggle with, not LESS, by keeping him in the leadoff spot in the batting order (instead of dropping him further down in the order). In that spot, he has a .286 career average and a .321 on-base percentage, which is mediocre for that spot in the lineup. Batting second and third, he has .305 and .291 averages, respectively, and with much higher on-base percentages. Those are clearly the two spots in the batting order where Crawford belongs on a more permanent basis.
But when you’re struggling, batting in the lower third of the batting order for a few games is what pro managers usually do to get a player out of his funk. Francona stubbornly has kept Crawford in the leadoff spot for the last four games now, going 3-for-23 in that span. In five games batting first in 2011, the left-handed veteran has a .130 BA.
The one time the manager dropped him to seventh this year, Crawford got two of the seven hits he has on the season. He should’ve been kept there for a few more games and then moved up to either second (where he’s had the most success this season, batting .167 with 2 SB) or third in the order. And hey, if batting Carl Crawford second means pushing Dustin Pedroia to third in the order, so be it. The latter can rake anywhere in the first third of the batting order.
But the other stubborn act that Francona and the Red Sox front office in general are guilty of is insisting that Jarrod Saltalamachia be the everyday Red Sox catcher from day one. I’ve stated countless times in the past year how I thought the kid was overrated when he was with Texas and then with Boston. He certainly isn’t the next Jason Varitek.
Sometimes, I think GM Theo Epstein is just so obsessed with stats that he forgets to watch how kids like him actually play on the field. And except for some power, he doesn’t even offer much in the way of good offensive stats (.154 BA in 2011; career .246 BA and .312 OBP). Fielding-wise, he’s nothing special either, with a .984 fielding percentage in mostly part-time duty in his four-plus major league seasons. Late last year in a game against the Chicago White Sox (that this writer attended), Salta dropped a throw at home plate that easily should have been caught for an out at the plate, and this year, he has been guilty of very wild throws to second base trying to throw out runners.
Maybe the Sox see in him the type of baseball smarts as a game-caller that can’t be found in the Sox farm system, I don’t know. But even that aspect of his game so far this year has been questionable, not because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but due to his inexperience with the likes of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Dice-K and Clay Buchholz. It’s fine for him to get experience catching one of those guys, but four of the five at the start of the season? No way!
It’s clear that Varitek needs to catch at least three of those starters for the near future, if for no other reason than to add stability and familiarity in the both game-calling part of the game and in the veteran-heavy lineup. WIth Varitek catching Josh Beckett on Sunday night, not only did the veteran righty pitch his best game in two seasons, the Sox shut out the Yankees, and yesterday, Lester only surrendered three runs in a loss to the Rays. Thus, even though I am not able to find the exact (ERA) stat that ESPN showed on Sunday night, as they and others have pointed out over the years, Sox pitchers perform better with Varitek behind the plate more than all other catchers. That’s why he’s “the captain.”
And as far as the leadoff position is concerned, Francona needs to have Marco Scutaro or an on-base guy like J.D. Drew do the job when Jacoby Ellsbury is struggling (as he is now). Scutaro exceeded in that role last year, and Drew won’t complain (or rejoice). Anyone but Crawford as leadoff. It’s a waste of his run-producing talent and been a dismal failure (much like the team overall) so far this year.
Photo credit: Boston Herald