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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

At the Quarter-Mark, Red Sox Aren't Half-Bad

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If Jake Peavy can cut down on the walks, the Red Sox have a potentially dominant 1-2-3 in their starting rotation. Getty Images

The Red Sox played their 40th game of the season Wednesday, a 4-3, extra-innings loss in Minnesota that marked the one-quarter pole of the 2014 season. At 20-20, Boston is three games off the pace of a year ago after 40 games (23-17), one game off the pace in 2012 (19-21), and on the exact same track as it was in 2011. The Sox were two games out of first place in 2013, five behind in 2012, and three back in 2011.

This year, Boston is only 1 1/2 games behind the front-running Orioles in a so-so American League East division. For a team that started 9-12, and looked little like the defending World Series champions for the bulk of April, its progression back to mediocrity was revealing on some fronts.

But, like how would you know? You were too busy watching hockey.

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With the Bruins now out of the way, the Celtics a month away from the NBA Draft, and the Patriots merely in waiting mode until they unleash their vengeance on the rest of the NFL, the Red Sox have the Boston sports floor. Do with it as you will.

In case you didn't know, David Ortiz is on pace for a whopping 44 home runs, Dustin Pedroia 60 doubles, John Lackey 20 wins, and Koji Uehara a 36-save season. If all that sounds honky- dory, it can be tempered by the facts that Jake Peavy is on pace for four wins, Edward Mujica to blame for rampant coronary disease, and Clay Buchholz en route to an 8-12 season filled with inconsistency and excuses.

"I feel like I'm on the right track, just not quite there yet," Buchholz said after allowing 10 hits for the second-straight game Thursday, good enough for catcher David Ross to deem his performance a "quality start."

Neat. If Buchholz is on the right track, then he's on the train to Oblivion.

Buchholz is becoming more and more of an issue every time he takes the mound, but is greatly overshadowed in the rotation by the stellar starts Lackey (5-2, 3.57 ERA) and Jon Lester (4-4, 2.75) have had. But as a whole, the Red Sox have thus far been a somewhat underwhelming defender to the crown.

As far as World Series hangovers are concerned, it could be worse. The 2008 Sox were 24-16 after 40 games, and, according to Terry Francona, was probably the most talented group assembled in his years at the helm. The 2005 team was a similar 23-17, buoyed by a 4-0 start from Matt Clement. Theo Epstein nailed that one, right?

This edition? They could be better if not for their early-season penchant to for twin-killings, and leaving more men in scoring position than a striptease. Grady Sizemore's backers have run out of pixie dust to spread on his bat. Other than yesterday's game-tying single, Will Middlebrooks (.203, two home runs, .646 OPS) is destined to ride the next commuter rail (delayed, of course) to Pawtucket. The offense as constructed, you would assume, is an Ortiz injury away from becoming a dog-paddling mess.

The DH got some heat in spring training when he complained about the offensive threats surrounding him in the batter order. Well, sorry big lug, our bad.

The Sox have scored 172 runs over their first 40 games, 10th-best in the American League, and an average of 4.3 per game. Ortiz has accounted for 11 of his team’s 33 home runs, 25 of the Red Sox’ 163 runs batted in, and has scored 22 of their runs. According to Bill James’ statistic that determines how many runs a player has created, Ortiz has accounted for 27, or about 16 percent. To make comparisons, Troy Tulowitski has created about 20 percent of the runs for the Colorado Rockies, who lead all of baseball with 233 this season. Miguel Cabrera accounts for 15 percent of the runs for the Detroit Tigers, whose .667 winning percentage is the best in the AL. San Diego’s Seth Smith has accounted for 23 runs for the Padres,19 percent for the least-scoring team in baseball. Jose Altuve has created 23 runs for the 14-27 Houston Astros, about 16 percent for the team with the worst record in baseball.

What does all that mean? Clearly it speaks to Ortiz’s vital importance in the lineup on a daily basis. Duh. But aside from Ortiz, Pedroia (22 RC), and Mike Napoli (20), the Red Sox’ offense is on the precipice of a black hole should they lose their prime time attraction. But if, say, the Yankees lose Yangervis Solarte (26 RC) for the season their lineup just might be able to withstand the blow, no matter how surprising the red-hot rookie may be.

From a pitching perspective, the Red Sox’ 3.77 team ERA is fifth in the AL, but the bullpen’s 3.18 ERA is second-best only to Oakland, despite a season from Andrew Miller that is destined to become the basis for a Ziggy cartoon strip any time soon, and Mujica (9.00 ERA), who has allowed at least one run in six of his 13 appearances this year. Uehara has – to some degree surprisingly – been somewhat of a clone of the 2013 version, Brandon Workman has been biding his time until he can mercifully take over for Buchholz in the rotation, and Chris Capuano, an afterthought during spring training, is third on the relief squad in strikeouts with 20. Minus Mujica, this is a dominant group.

As far as starters are concerned, Lester and Lackey’s combined win total of nine is almost double that of Peavy, Felix Doubront, and Buchholz put together (five).

It’s not all Peavy’s fault that he has one win to speak of. In five of his eight starts, he’s allowed two or fewer runs, though he’s had two ugly hiccups; Tuesday night in Minnesota (4 1/3 innings, six earned runs), and April 20 against Baltimore (5 2/3 innings, five earned runs). But walks have been a colossal issue. Peavy’s 27 free passes lead the AL, tied with R.A. Dickey, and even though he’s allowed the fewest hits (43) among the starters in 48 innings pitched, his walk amount is almost twice that of Buchholz’ total (14). It’s nearly three times that of Lackey (11).

This is something of an aberration for Peavy, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. He walked only 36 batters total last season, split between Chicago and Boston, 34 and 24 in 2010 and ’11 respectively. So, why now?

BoSox Injection raises a good point:

Well, it all starts with Peavy’s fastball. He is using his four-seam fastball at the lowest rate of his career, just 11.5%, with his two-seam fastball replacing the four-seamer as Peavy’s main pitch; he is using the two-seamer at 47.6% of the time. That’s all well and good– after all, many pitchers turn away from the fastball as they age and lose velocity– but with the ineffectiveness of Peavy’s four-seam fastball, he is unable to throw a definite strike pitch when behind in the count, which could play into his inability to climb back ahead in the count…Peavy’s fear of throwing a meatball could play into his challenges in throwing strikes. For the first time in his career, his four-seam fastball is averaging below 90 miles per hour, with his average four-seamer clocking in at 89.7 mph. It could simply be psychological and Peavy will learn to place himself ahead in the count with an off-speed pitch or look to improve his control of the two-seamer.

If that’s a sign that Peavy is being too careful in a free agent year, may we suggest a four-win season doesn’t exactly scream payday either.

In a way, Peavy represents the 2014 Sox as a whole; the potential is there ready to burst with some minor adjustments.

“The characteristic of this team is consistent with a year ago, and that is it loves to compete and loves to prepare,” manager John Farrell said. “We’ve shown it repeatedly and yet we’re also gaining valuable experience on the field and at the plate with a couple of positions on the field so we need to continue to pitch well, particularly our starters, to keep games in check.

“We felt like coming out of spring training, record-wise we’d be better than what we are, but we’re clearly in the mix of this.”

A quarter gone by. Things aren’t half-bad.


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