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Rolling the… Masterson? April 23, 2009

Posted by akean in Uncategorized.
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Last week, I wrapped up my first analysis of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s pitching “strategy” by speculating on what he would bring to the table in his next start against Oakland. One possibility that I didn’t consider was that Dice-K would get shelled to the tune of five runs on five hits and two walks in the first inning – his only inning. Nor did I speculate that immediately following that inning he would be placed on the 15-day DL with a terrifyingly obscure case of arm fatigue. Probably not a good sign for someone with a history of throwing 200-pitch complete games.

On the bright side, Matsuzaka hasn’t recently visited Dr. James Andrews and is back on a throwing program. And on the brighter side, the Red Sox have now won seven in a row. One of those wins – as part of a four-game sweep of the waiting-for-Matt-Wieters O’s – was picked up by Justin Masterson, who made a spot start in Dice-K’s place.

For those unfamiliar with the Red Sox’ roster, Justin Masterson is listed at 6-6, 250, and is a 24-year old sidewinding righty originally from Kingston, Jamaica. Masterson’s delivery doesn’t look like what you’d expect from a 6-6 power pitcher, and he definitely doesn’t look Jamaican. His size/arm angle combo remind me of current Miami Hurricane closer Kyle Bellamy, though Masterson gets his outs with a sharp sinker rather than an absurd slider. Masterson also looks pretty damn goofy as he throws:


Anyway, before Dice-K’s atrocious inning in Oakland, Masterson had made three appearances in 2009. He went two-thirds of an inning and picked up a meaningless hold in the team’s opening-day win over Tampa Bay, retired the only man he faced two days later, and then was tagged for three runs in an inning against the Angels. Four days after that, he entered with the Red Sox down 5-3 in the second inning and left with the game tied 5-5 at the end of the fifth. Four innings of two-hit ball with six strikeouts on 60 pitches – pretty impressive for a guy who had thrown a total of 43 pitches to that point in the season.

Five days later, Dice-K’s spot in the rotation came up, and instead of calling up Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden from Pawtucket, Terry Francona threw Masterson out there. And the big righty delivered 5.1 solid innings and picked up his first win of the season. Now, Masterson wasn’t quite as good in this outing – he gave up four hits and a run, only struck out three and walked two – but any manager would take this type of outing from a fourth or fifth starter on a reguar basis, let alone a guy making a spot start out of the pen.

The five appearances that Masterson has made in 2009 are a small sample, but I think they represent just what kind of pitcher he is. He broke into the big leagues last season*, and ended up putting together a solid 3.18 ERA in 88.1 innings. He made one start each in April and May, and then moved into the rotation on a consistent basis for June and the early part of July – putting together a 4-3 record and a 3.67 ERA in those 9 starts. He never went more than 6.2 innings but only went less than 6 once.

*What would anyone do without baseball-reference? So much cool info.

Masterson was perhaps even more effective last year in his 27 relief appearances – in which he went more than two innings seven times and never gave up more than one run. Sure, some of that success was due to the fact that it was his first time around the league. It’s got to be pretty tough to face Masterson’s sidearm sinker and slider if you’ve been looking at a Josh Beckett 12-6 curve all day, and it’s got to be even tougher to do that if you’ve never seen Masterson’s sinker and slider before. But 88.1 innings is a pretty decent sample size and Masterson’s stuff stuck for all of those innings. All in all, Masterson’s 2008 was both a great first season for a young pitcher and an oustanding job of managing that young pitcher’s workload by Francona and John Farrell.

Is Masterson ever going to have the stuff of an ace or even a number two starter? Probably not. Is he ever going to be a dominant closer? He won’t get the chance as long as Jonathan Papelbon’s shoulder doesn’t fall off in the next few years. But Masterson has shown that he’s a capable and – most importantly – versatile pitcher. On a major league pitching staff, roster spots are at a premium, and a guy who can set up, work some long relief and fill in in the rotation is a rare commodity. Someone who can do all three of those is exceptional, and Justin Masterson is one of those guys.

In the realm of talented young pitchers, Masterson is never going to be Tim Lincecum or Joakim Soria. But he’s a guy who is a crucial piece of the pitching staff puzzle, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in a Red Sox uniform for years to come.


Black (and blue) and Gold April 20, 2009

Posted by akean in Bruins.
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Canadiens Bruins Hockey

To the untrained eye, this picture is not particularly interesting. Sure, hockey fights are compelling, but with these long-time rivals mixing it up in their 32nd all-time playoff series this type of confrontation is anticipated and expected. But anyone who watched the third period of Saturday night’s game – and anyone familiar with the Bruins in general – will realize that Patrice Bergeron, of all people, came out on top in this scuffle. The very same Patrice Bergeron who before Saturday night had earned a grand total of zero fighting majors in his 5-year NHL career. The very same Patrice Bergeron who has accrued more than half as many penalty minutes in the first two games of this series as he did over the entire 08-09 regular season.

Through two games, the Bruins have outscored Montreal 9-3, and unsurprisingly lead the series 2-0. Though the Habs worked to overcome an early two-goal deficit in Game 1, Boston pulled away in the second half of that game’s third period. Game 2 was never close. Someone more schooled in the technical intricacies of hockey might point to a specific change in strategy that let the Bruins control Game 2. But what I see in the Bruins is a team that, when pushed, isn’t afraid to push back.

In an apparent attempt to throw the B’s off their game, Montreal head coach Bob Gainey played toughguy Georges Laraque on the Canadiens’ top line for much of Game 1. It could’ve been a good idea, except Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and Laraque was credited with a grand total of 1 hit in 13:12 of ice time. At the end of Game 1, Phil Kessel’s empty-net goal sparked a confrontation that, while started by the Habs, led to two players from each team receiving 10-minute misconducts in the game’s final seconds.

Some teams might let that kind of game-out-of-hand scrap get to them, but the Bruins came out flying in Game 2. They once again put in two first-period goals and topped themselves with a three-spot in the second period. Boston also kept itself out of the penalty box – the Habs had just one power-play chance, more on that later – and capitalized on their opportunities with a trifecta of man-advantage goals. In essence, the Bruins made Montreal pay and kept their heads – with one notable exception.Canadiens Bruins Hockey

That exception is obviously Milan Lucic’s cross-check/jab to the face of a helmetless Maxim Lapierre with just under 5 minutes left Saturday night. While the Versus commentators indicated that Montreal had instigated the confrontation – the beginning was initially off-camera – Lucic’s retaliation was largely unnecessary and he probably deserves to sit out a game, as he will while serving a one-game suspension in Game 3. After it happened, Lucic earned himself a match penalty and gave the Canadiens an unreleasable power-play for the last 4:32 of the contest. With a four-goal lead the Bruins could have gone soft on the penalty kill, wheeling out a backup unit and letting in a soft goal. But instead, they surrendered just one shot on goal – a long-range Alex Tanguay slapper as time expired.

Lucic’s cheap shot didn’t hurt the Bruins in Game 2 and might not hurt them much in Game 3. Not to take nothing away from Lucic, whose rare enforcer-playmaker combo is even rarer at his age of 20, but the Bruins’ offense won’t miss much with Blake Wheeler moving up a line in his place. And that’s what I love most about this team. Sure, Marc Savard and Phil Kessel are the team’s two best offensive players. But is there much of a drop-off from Savard to third-liner David Krejci, let alone Bergeron? Is Kessel so much of a better goal scorer than Michael Ryder or Mark Recchi? I don’t think so, and that’s what makes the Bruins dangerous come playoff time. As incredible as Alex Ovechkin is, the Washington Capitals are a different team when he isn’t on the ice – and even more different when both he and Alexander Semin are riding the pine. The Bruins don’t have that problem, and that’s going to serve them well in the coming weeks.

A lot can happen in the next week. The dynamics of this series could change after the next two games in Montreal. The Habs could rally behind their raucous home crowd and even the series. Or the Bruins could build on their momentum and blow Montreal away in Games 3 and 4. That uncertainty, more than anything else, is what makes playoff hockey so much fun.

Rolling the Dice #1 April 13, 2009

Posted by akean in Red Sox.
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Daisuke Matsuzaka is one of the most valuable third starters that you could find in a Major League Baseball rotation. Theoretically, a team’s third starter should be a roughly average pitcher, and – at least in 2008 – Matsuzaka performed decidedly above average. His ERA+ (park-adjusted ERA, with 100 being exactly league average) of 159 ranked second in the American League behind Cy Young winner Cliff Lee’s 175. Jon Lester, the Red Sox ‘second’ starter, managed a 144. Matsuzaka also scored near the top of the league in strikeouts per nine innings, where his ratio of 8.266 put him fifth in the league behind, among others, Red Sox ‘ace’ Josh Beckett.

Without a doubt, Matsuzaka had a great season in 2008. He built on his first season in the majors after spending the first part of his career pitching in his native Japan, and seems to be well on his way to earning his six-year, 52 million dollar contract (if not the $51 million posting fee). And yet, as a fan Matsuzaka is a frustrating pitcher to watch. He is a master of nibbling at the corners, getting to full counts and surrendering walks. Compared to 2007, Matsuzaka surrendered 14 more walks in 2008 despite dropping his ERA from 4.40 to 2.90 and cutting his home runs allowed in half.

Matsuzaka’s ‘stuff’ is remarkable, as he features multiple breaking balls and rarely gives up solid contact. Yet he rarely goes more than six innings because he works so many lengthy counts and seems to be afraid to attack hitters. In what I hope to make a regular feature on this blog – bad Dice-K pun aside – I will look at key at-bats in Matsuzaka’s outings in an attempt to see just what makes this enigmatic pitcher tick.

I’ll begin, of course, with Matsuzaka’s season-opening outing against the Tampa Bay Rays. On the surface, this was a tailor-made Dice-K performance: 100 pitches in 5.1 innings, five strikeouts against three walks. But Matsuzaka uncharacteristically surrendered nine hits and three homers and the Red Sox ended up losing 4-3.

The first of the three homers – a solo shot by Matt Joyce – came in the second inning:


Pitch 1 was an 87-mph fastball which Joyce swung at and missed. Pitch 2 – despite being about the same distance off the plate as pitch 1 – was a 78-mph changeup taken for a ball. Dice-K changed up movement and location with a 81-mph slider for pitch 3, and as a result Joyce came up empty once again. And, of course, pitch 4 is the one that must have given pitching coach John Farrell an ulcer – a 1-2 fastball right in everyone’s wheelhouse. I’ll get back to this at-bat soon.

Next, Matsuzaka gave up a 2-run bomb to Evan Longoria in the third inning:


This at-bat is not particularly interesting. After missing well inside with a fastball (1), Dice-K threw another fastball for a strike (2, hidden under 3) and then hung a slider (3) belt-high and over the plate in the exact same spot as the previous pitch. It was simply a terrible pitch from Matsuzaka – one that a hitter as good as Longoria knows exactly what to do with.

So let’s move on to what proved to be the eventual game-winning homer, hit by Shawn Riggans in the fourth:


The red trails on these pitches indicate that Matsuzaka fed Riggans a steady diet of fastballs here, and after taking two of them Riggans blasts the third for an opposite-field home run.

Again discounting Longoria’s hanging slider, let’s look at the Joyce and Riggans at-bats. Clearly, Matsuzaka and catcher Jason Varitek employed different approaches, mixing up pitches against Joyce while trying to blow Riggans away with fastballs. But in both at-bats Matsuzaka was around the plate, probably more than a pitcher who throws 100+ pitches in less than six innings would ordinarily be. Out of the seven pitches those two hitters saw, only the first fastball to Riggans missed badly. The approach taken here represents a marked change for a pitcher who is known for beating around the bush.

Neither Joyce nor Riggans is a regular in the Tampa Bay starting lineup, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that neither is one of the Rays’ better hitters. Both of Dice-K’s unintentional walks in this outing came against hitters at the top of the order – leadoff batter Akinori Iwamura and cleanup man Carlos Pena. In being more cautious against these hitters, Matsuzaka apparently let loose against the bottom part of the Tampa Bay lineup and paid for it.

I don’t think anyone other than Varitek, Matsuzaka, Farrell and maybe Terry Francona know if this aggressive approach against weaker hitters will last. And a sample size of one start and two home runs can’t tell you much of anything about how Dice-K is pitching this season. But it will be an interesting trend to keep an eye on.

Dice-K will take the mound tomorrow night in Oakland. Maybe he’ll pitch lights out and actually complete six innings. Maybe he’ll walk six but give up no runs and just one hit. Or maybe he’ll again serve up dingers to batters towards the bottom of the lineup. No one knows for sure, and that’s the fun of rolling the dice!

Scal April 5, 2009

Posted by akean in Celtics.
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Rajon Rondo crosses the timeline in transition, looking for an option. Seeing Paul Pierce on the wing, he instead fires a pass into the corner, where Boston’s most beloved Celtic stands completely unguarded. The balcony rises to its feet as the shot takes its typical rainbow trajectory, and the speakers blast the public address announcer’s call:

“Brian Scalabrineeee! For threeeeeeeeeeee!”

Exactly half of Brian Scalabrine‘s 48 made field goals in 2008-09 have been from beyond the three-point arc. He has appeared in 39 games and is inexplicably owned in 0.1% of ESPN’s fantasy basketball leagues. At the age of 30, he could neither be said to have any upside nor described as a ‘wily veteran.’ There is no word more inappropriate to describe Scalabrine’s basketball ability than ‘talented.’ And yet the Garden gets its loudest when Scal spots up in the corner. Sure, the fans love a Rondo-to-Garnett alley-oop just as they love a clutch Pierce fadeaway or Ray Allen’s smooth stroke. But in the end, nothing can compare to Scal.

Obviously, this begs a few questions. Firstly, just why is the unquestioned worst player to don the Celtic green in the last two seasons such a beloved figure? In my mind, it’s got something to do with the fact that he’s the only white, redheaded, and hilariously unathletic (well, Glen Davis doesn’t look athletic, but he gets it done) member of a championship-caliber basketball team. In no way does Scalabrenie belong in the NBA playoffs, but come late April he’ll be there.* It’s almost as if Scal is the everyman’s hero, assuming the average Celtics fan aspires to be a 6-9 ginger who feasts on garbage-time minutes and almost never gets rebounds.

* And by “there,” I mean sitting on the bench with a prolonged case of post-concussion syndrome. Only Scal could find a way to suffer three concussions in about a month’s time despite playing remarkably contact-free ball.

And that leads into another matter. Someone in Boston’s front office saw Scal’s ‘breakout’ season with New Jersey 2004-05 – during which he made 14 starts and his ppg skyrocketed to 6.3 – and said, “this is a guy who can annually contribute $3,206,897 of basketball prowess to our basketball team.” Which is troubling, as Scal doesn’t actually possess a valuable basketball skill. Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Mikki Moore are taller. Allen, Pierce and Eddie House are better three-point shooters. And I’m pretty sure both head man Doc Rivers and assistant Tom Thibodeau are better ballhandlers.

And yet, from January 11 to 25 Scalabrine made 5 starts and logged 15+ minutes 7 times. Though he only cracked double figures twice and never pulled down more than four boards, the Celtics went 8-0 over that span. Sure, during that time the Celtics played home-and-homes against the lowly Nets and Raptors, but they also beat two playoff teams – Orlando and Miami – by double-digits on the road.

Really, though, I don’t think anyone could say that Scalabrine had a direct hand in those wins – at least in terms of helping the Celtics. He was replacing an injured Kendrick Perkins, a guy who’s offensive contributions are certainly replacable. It is almost a testament to the rest of the team that they were able to win game’s despite Scal’s remarkably empty minutes.* Yet the Celtics haven’t lost a game that Scalabrine has started this season, and I think there’s something to be said for that.

* Jan. 21 @ Miami: 22 minutes, 1-2 FG, 3 pts, 1 reb, 1 ast, 1 blk, 1 TO, 5 PF. Apart from the fouls, those stats could typically be accumulated in two or three minutes of playing time. What, exactly, did Scal do while he was on the court?

In the end, no team in a league other than Major League Baseball can afford a roster full of stars. And as Scal proves, no team can afford a roster completely full of good players. So, if every team is bound to have a guy who doesn’t actually contribute anything except for the odd 3-pointer every game or two, then why not have it be this guy?