Ask Amalie: What’s up with Okajima, the disabled list and the middle relievers?

Bill Hall called this road trip – through New York, Toronto, and Texas – the most important 10 games of the season. And he hasn’t backed off in subsequent comments, including ones made after yesterday’s game, which finished off the split of the four-game series with New York. So while the Sox did manage to advance slightly on Tampa Bay, which is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, they didn’t do nearly enough to help themselves get back into a race that seems to always be just beyond them.

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Submit your question here for Amalie Benjamin to consider it for the next edition of this feature.

Can they do it? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think this is their year, but I’ve been proven wrong before. I do feel like we keep writing that we’ll know the true story of the Red Sox in the next week, in the next two weeks, and we still don’t know in the middle of August. It’s a bit strange to follow the team every day and yet not quite know what to make of them.


So as we begin to look past this season, at the same time that there’s a sliver of hope left for this season, we come to this week’s edition of the mailbag. Once again, there’s a lot on Hideki Okajima, though not exactly the same topic as last time. There are also musings on players on the DL, Terry Francona’s Manager of the Year candidacy, and middle relief. And, as always, there’s plenty that we didn’t get to address. So please feel free to send more questions for the next mailbag, due out in two weeks.

Jeff from San Diego, California asks: Hideki Okajima gives me the impression he’s a bit of a loner… or, perhaps, uncomfortable in the United States. Any explanation or theory as to why he has chosen to not address the media while playing for the Sox? Quite a contrast from Dice-K. And how is he perceived by his teammates? Does he mix in well with them or just keep to himself? Thanks for considering my question; always look forward to The Mailbag.

Answer: Thanks, Jeff. I’d say that you’re just about right in your assessment of Okajima’s standing in the clubhouse. He is a bit of a loner and he seems uncomfortable in the United States. It doesn’t appear that he has made much of an effort to integrate himself into the culture, nor has he made much of an effort with his teammates. For the first three years of his time with the Sox, he had one interpreter, Jeff Yamaguchi. He has a new one this season, Ryo Shinkawa. For Okajima, and to some degree Daisuke Matsuzaka too, that interpreter has been a major part of his socialization, necessary for interactions with teammates and coaches. Matsuzaka, though, learned how to speak at least a basic level of English and is far less tied to his interpreter than Okajima is to his. Ultimately, it appears that Okajima has never really wanted to fully become a part of the Red Sox. He hasn’t learned much English. He has struggled with the travel schedule. As Francona half-joked the other day, he isn’t even entirely comfortable with Western medicine. I just think there’s no real desire to take part in some of this stuff, which likely is part of the reason he’s not so fond of dealing with the media. He does talk to us, as he did on Friday after being put on the disabled list, but it’s clear that he would rather be doing just about anything else. He said when he came to the Sox that he wanted to be the “hero in the dark.” He has remained that way, even with his teammates, including Matsuzaka. While many believed that Okajima’s signing was initially to give Matsuzaka someone to associate with, that has not at all been the case over their four years. In fact, they seem to rarely interact.


Marc from Westport, Massachusetts: What has gone wrong with Hideki Okajima? In 2007, ’08 and part of ’09, he filled such a key role in the Sox bullpen but has really underperformed this year. I have heard that he may not return to the Sox in ’11. Have AL batters simply become used to him or is there more to the story? I always appreciate your keen insight into all things Red Sox.

Answer: There are a couple of theories as to what has gone wrong with Okajima, beginning with the fact that a large part of his effectiveness comes from his deception. It certainly doesn’t come from his velocity, which hovers in the 87-to-89 range. That means that familiarity with the lefthander might be playing a part in the struggles that he’s had this season. While all of his numbers have been slipping since his stellar 2007, his first year in the majors, they have made an enormous jump this season, to a 5.85 ERA, to a 1.98 WHIP. That’s significant. Okajima addressed the media on Friday, the day he was placed on the disabled list, and indicated that he believed some of the blame could be attributed to injuries that he’s dealt with all year. “I had a problem with my hip and back for a while, but I felt something in my hamstring yesterday when I threw, so I feel that the problem with my hip and back came down into my hamstring,” Okajima said, through Shinkawa. “It’s not been a great year for me health-wise. I’ve had injuries in the personal workout, in the offseason, and in spring training. They have been lingering as well, so it hasn’t been a great year health-wise.” Okajima is arbitration eligible this season, and could be non-tendered in the offseason.


Chris from Providence, Rhode Island asks: I was just wondering what your thoughts are on Ryan Kalish. I’ve been following him throughout the season and he’s been exceptional. Recently PawSox manager Torey Lovullo dubbed Kalish a future superstar. Is he the real deal or is this just too much hype being placed on a prospect ( a la Paxton Crawford)? If you think that he’s as good as advertised, how high do you consider his ceiling? Thanks for the great work!
Answer: I really like Ryan Kalish as a player and, more than that, I know the organization really likes Kalish as a player. There’s a lot that goes into Francona’s comparison of Kalish to Trot Nixon, and Nixon could be a good model for his future career. That’s the type of player he is, hard-nosed, coachable, a throwback, with a lot of talent behind those other good qualities. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kalish has a very successful career as a major leaguer, with the ability to hit, hit for power, and defend. He can run, too, and I think his arm is even a little better than advertised. While he can play center field at this point, it does seem as if he’ll end up in the corners for most of his career. It’s definitely hard not to put too much hype on some prospects, especially ones in the Sox system that get a lot of ink while they’re still in the minor leagues. There is a lot of excitement about his prospects, and I think it’s warranted. But, as Francona loves to say, it’s not time for Cooperstown yet.
Nathaniel from Watertown, Massachusetts asks: I always found it odd that players on the DL, who are supposed to be recovering from injuries, still spend every night sitting in the dugout. Sitting outdoors on a bench all night is hardly what the doctor ordered. If I were on the DL, I’d go home, get plenty of sleep every night, and try and get back on the team ASAP. What good does it do to “travel with the team”? Did Youkilis call out Ellsbury for breaking an unwritten old-school baseball rule?
Answer: For players who are ill — with something like the flu or flu-like symptoms — the Sox generally send them home to go to sleep and recover. It’s different with a broken foot, like Dustin Pedroia, or a problematic hip, like Mike Lowell. It’s unlikely that either would have his recovery time impacted by sitting on a bench and watching a baseball game. And for many guys on the disabled list, that’s exactly where they’d prefer to be. That’s not true for every player, and that’s not true for every game. The Sox often allow players on the DL to take off a road trip here or there, if it makes more sense for the player to be at home, or if there are no baseball activities in which he can take part. Lowell, for instance, spent some time at his home in Miami when he was on the DL earlier this year. But there’s also a sense of camaraderie, of team, that comes from guys being there with each other, even if they can’t actually play in a game. It means a lot to his teammates to have Pedroia around, even on crutches. It’s something that Francona has remarked upon many times this season, how good it is to be in such a group, and how important it is for teammates to see the DL guys making as much of an effort to be present and be part of things as they can. Some players travel with the team to be there. Some travel because they have workouts they can do with the trainers, or treatment they can get. There are differing reasons. Ultimately, though, it’s something that’s noticed by the other guys in the room.
Hazel from Keysville, Virginia asks: Can you give us your opinion as to why Terry Francona has never been named Manager of the Year? Regardless of whether the Sox win their division, or the WS this year, if they make it into the playoffs, should he be given serious consideration this year? I don’t think there are many clubs, who could maintain, as well as the Sox have, with as many MAJOR players on the DL at the same time.
Answer: It might not be fair, but managers are sometimes penalized for the money spent by their owners. And that could be something that has held Francona back from being named Manager of the Year. Sometimes voters are apt to give more credit to a manager who has been able to do more with less, especially if it’s a less talented roster. As I mentioned in my chat on Friday, I do think that Francona will get a good amount of consideration from the voters in the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America), as long as the Sox don’t completely fall out of the race. (I think Texas’s Ron Washington will also be up there for the award this year.) One of Francona’s particular strengths is his ability to manage a clubhouse, to keep everyone on the same page and keep everyone moving forward together toward the ultimate goal. His abilities in that area have been very evident this season, as the Sox were able to move on from a dysfunctional first month of the season to pull together to make a run on the American League East. It’s not clear at this point if that will continue, but what is clear is that Francona — despite the occasional questionable in-game decision — has done an excellent job this season with the major part of his job, managing the clubhouse.
Spud from Southern Pines, North Carolina asks: After watching Garza’s no-hitter on TV, I have this theory, and I wonder if you would agree. This “year of the pitcher” we seem to be seeing may be explained by the generally more liberal strike zone of the plate umpires across the league. It seems to me this one small change completely controls both the speed of the game and the effectiveness of the pitchers. Make sense?
Answer: You’re not alone in thinking that the impressive pitching this season might just be getting a boost from the umpires. David Ortiz recently expressed serious reservations about this topic, talking about how it was clear in his mind that he was getting more bad calls per at bat than ever, and that fact might just be having an effect on how well pitchers are doing. “It’s a joke,” Ortiz said on Saturday. To combat that, he has to “swing at all kinds of [stuff]. Nothing you can do, man. Swing, swing, swing, swing, and good luck. The pace time is killing the game. We’ve got to rush as a hitter.” I’m not sure why this has happened, whether it’s a reaction to increasing the pace of games, but the bad calls would certainly be in keeping with this being the “year of the bad call,” whether that’s on balls-and-strikes or on calls in the field. I know I’ve seen a lot of frustration from hitters, and it’s not always the usual suspects, the guys who show their frustration no matter what. So while I’m not sure it would be fair to take away all the credit from the pitchers’ performances, I do think you might be on to something with your theory.
Chris from Sudbury, Massachusetts asks: With one (if not their most important) need being to shore up their middle relief, do you think the Red Sox have effectively addressed this need?
Answer: I’m not sure they have, Chris. The Sox were in on a number of relievers before the trading deadline, including Scott Downs, Brian Fuentes, Brandon League, and Kevin Gregg. They made inquiries on Kerry Wood and Chad Qualls. It made sense to try to be active in the reliever market because the bullpen, as constituted, has many faults. We’ll see if their young pitchers can make the leap to the major leagues and succeed in the bullpen, but there’s no guarantee on that. The Sox have already brought up Felix Doubront, and we may well see Michael Bowden before too long. Those guys are untested and unproven, and we have no idea if they’ll hold up in the big leagues in big situations. So, ultimately, I don’t think the Sox have done nearly enough. Now, if the team generally believes that its season is over and that there was no reason to spend big (money and/or prospects) to correct serious issues in the bullpen, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s unwise to sacrifice major prospects for bullpen rentals that can be hit-or-miss. But if you’re solely asking me whether they’ve effectively addressed the need, I’d say that they haven’t. I still believe that there are only two pitchers who should be trusted in the current bullpen, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.
Wes from Portland, Oregon asks: What was the deal with Adrian Beltre in the first game against the Indians? After hitting the late game home run, I saw on “SportsCenter that V-Mart touched his head and Beltre freaked out. What was going on there? Misunderstanding or is Beltre a freak?
Answer: It’s not exactly clear. But here’s some of the back story for anyone who doesn’t already know, and is confused every time Adrian Beltre tries to take a swing at a teammate. One of the first times I remember it happening was on June 4 in Baltimore after a home run by Beltre. As Beltre said at the time of Victor Martinez, “He knows I don’t like that. I don’t like anybody to touch my head, and he knows it. He does it on purpose. So I’m not responsible for everything that happens after that.” It seems to be mostly playful, though it’s also clear that Beltre really, really doesn’t like anyone to touch his head. So, of course, his teammates try to touch it after home runs as often as they can to tweak him. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why it happened in the first place, how his teammates found out, and why Beltre doesn’t like it. But it’s definitely become a running joke in the Red Sox clubhouse, with Beltre often threatening bodily harm on his teammates who try to rub his dome. If I were them, I probably wouldn’t provoke him — he has broken 10 or so ribs this season, after all — but his teammates are obviously braver than I am.
Mark from Anchorage, Alaska asks: We fans are notoriously quick to dump on Red Sox closers who have a couple of bad outings — about 10 years ago I sent Shaughnessy a one-line note, “Derek Lowe is Calvin Schiraldi” — but Papelbon’s catastrophe today against the Tigers is more cause for concern. If Daniel Bard is indeed the closer of the future, why not make him the closer of the present by flipping Papelbon to the eighth-inning setup role and giving Bard the responsibility now? Or would that disturb Papelbon’s possibly delicate psychology (more than it deserves to be disturbed already)?
Answer: I agree with two parts of this, that Papelbon has not been nearly as effective this season as in the past, and that Bard is the closer of the future. But there’s a couple of very good reasons why Papelbon has remained in the closer’s role this season, even as people have called for the installation of his set-up man in his spot. If the Sox do indeed want to trade Papelbon in the future — and I believe that might be the case — it wouldn’t make sense to decrease his role and thereby decrease his value. The Sox would be putting themselves in line to get a smaller return if they did decide to ship him out of Boston. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The other reason is far more pressing. The Sox don’t have a lot of talent or effectiveness in their bullpen this season. In fact, there are really only two trustworthy arms in the bullpen at the moment, Papelbon’s and Bard’s. Not only would Papelbon be extremely upset about a demotion to the eighth inning, it likely would do little to increase the production of the relievers. And remember, Papelbon remains an very good closer, just not as good as he once was. Sure, you might get a chance to see how Bard can perform as a closer. But you’d lose out on what the combination brings in the eighth and ninth, which is crucial if this club has any chance to get back into the race down the stretch. I see how people could think that this plan might make sense. But, in my mind, it would be a total misuse of resources, a way to make a clubhouse unhappy and dysfunctional, and without a lot of benefit in either the short or long term.
Craig from Milford, Massachusetts asks: What do the Red Sox do with Jeremy Hermida? He was DFA’d at the trading deadline. By the time this question gets answered it will have been the 10-day deadline for the Sox to either trade him, release him, or outright him to the minors. What do you think the Sox will do with him since I haven’t heard anyone interested in him?
Answer: There apparently wasn’t anyone interested in Jeremy Hermida, as the outfielder has now been outrighted to Triple A. That means that he was put through waivers, no one claimed him, and he will remain with the Sox organization in the minors, for now. The Sox took a chance that he would live up to his billing and his talent in a new setting, away from the Marlins, but that obviously didn’t happen. Hermida didn’t perform before or after being struck by Beltre, the impact of which broke five of his ribs. While he piled up the two-out RBI early in the season, he has batted just .203 with five home runs, 27 RBI, and 45 strikeouts in 158 at bats. Plus, his defense isn’t exactly stellar in the outfield. That ultimately wasn’t enough to make him more valuable than Darnell McDonald, who has the added benefit of being able to play center field. Hermida could make a reappearance in September, but it seems that this turned out to simply be a failed experiment, albeit one that didn’t cost the Sox much.

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