Tony Massarotti on how to make a great team better:
- Call me crazy, but on some level, I think the Red Sox actually miss Javier Lopez in their bullpen.
The Red Sox, who own the best record in the American League, will open the second half of the season tomorrow night in Toronto. Clay Buchholz will get the start. Behind him, manager Terry Francona will begin the most critical games of the year with a relief corps that recently has shown some signs of cracking, particularly in blowing leads of 10-1 (to the Baltimore Orioles on June 30) and 4-0 (to the Kansas City Royals) during the final two weeks of the first half.
Statistical aberration? Or a worrisome sign of things to come?
This brings us back to Lopez, who enjoyed a fine season as the Red Sox lefthanded specialist in 2008. Last year, Lopez limited lefties to a .182 average in 70 appearances, posting a 2.43 ERA in the process. The early-season plan this year was to have Lopez in the very same role, at least until lefties belted him at a .429 clip (with a 1.110 OPS) and ushered him back to the minor leagues, where he has since posted a 4.20 ERA in 16 games. Triple A lefties are hitting .296 against him.
With Lopez out, the Sox subsequently turned to lefty Hunter Jones and, later, righthander Daniel Bard, the latter of whom is seemingly being groomed to be [Jonathan] Papelbon's successor some day. That has made [Hideki] Okajima the sole lefty in the Boston bullpen, leaving Francona without a matchup specialist for the sixth and seventh innings. Last season, of the 218 plate appearances against Lopez, 130 of them came in the sixth or seventh innings.
With roughly two weeks now remaining before the annual July 31 trading deadline, the Red Sox appear to have a need for another lefty in their bullpen, something at least one Sox official privately has acknowledged. The problem is that two lefties are a luxury that many teams covet and few possess, particularly in a world where any lefthanded pitching already is at a premium. And so, the Sox are likely to go with only one lefty [Okajima] until at least Sept. 1, when roster expansion will allow them to summon at least one specialist from a group that includes Lopez.
First, if Lopez is healthy, there's no reason to think he's any worse this year than he was last year. As you know, relievers are subject to the terrible vagaries of the small sample size, and of course specialists like Lopez are particularly vulnerable. That .429 average he gave up against left-handed hitters before getting sent down? As you also know, Bill James works for the Boston Red Sox. In 1994, the Montreal Expos, managed by Felipe Alou, finished with the best record in the major leagues. Somewhat amazingly, for most of the season the Expos had only five relief pitchers: closer John Wetteland, semi-closer Mel Rojas, Gil Heredia, Jeff Shaw, and Tim Scott. Aside from pitching effectively, what did those five have in common? Each of them was (and is, last I checked) right-handed. For most of the season, the best team in baseball had five relievers and zero lefty relievers.
Somehow, it worked. Here's what James wrote about that, shortly afterward:
- I am certain that if you asked Felipe Alou about his lack of a lefty in the bullpen, he would tell you that he would like very much to have a lefty in the bullpen, but he doesn't have one, so he's not going to worry about it.
But the fact is, there are many managers around who don't have a good lefty in the bullpen, aren't there? What the other managers do, when they don't have a lefty, is go through eight guys in a season, trying to get somebody established in that role. Tony La Russa, the quickest hook in the American League, always has two lefties in the bullpen, often three.
And as to the announcers' claim that this is a tremendous disadvantage to the Expos, not to have a lefty in the bullpen ... well, what's the evidence for that? They led the league in ERA and saves, and they had the best won-lost record in the majors. What did it cost them not to have a lefty in the pen?
Focusing on the stat I gave before -- the Expos' relievers had the platoon advantage on the first batter only 46 percent of the time, lowest in the majors -- what did that really cost them? One hit. They used 259 relievers, and the reliever had a first-batter edge 119 times, when he would probably have had a first-batter edge on another team about 155 times. Since that's a difference of 36 at bats with the platoon advantage, and since the platoon advantage is about 30 points (.030), there is an expected loss of one hit from not being in a position to get a lefty-on-lefty matchup.
Of course, there might be a second hit or a third hit later on down the line, but it still doesn't seem like a big deal to me. The advantages of it would seem, on the basis of what I can see, to easily outweigh the disadvantages.
This overstates the case a little bit, I think. The platoon advantage might be 30 points, generally, but it's larger than that for a significant number of relief pitchers, right? Then again, maybe not. I just checked a bunch of left-handed "specialists" and was more than a little surprised to find platoon splits that really aren't all that big. Ron Mahay? Darren Oliver? Jeremy Affeldt? Alan Embree? They all fall right in line, career-wise, with that 30-point edge.
Of course, the Red Sox aren't the Expos. While I will maintain that there's little reason for the seven-man bullpen, it's certainly true that Francona doesn't have much use for an extra hitter or two. Not with that lineup. It's not that Francona couldn't use a second southpaw, or that he doesn't have room on the roster for one. It's just not worth obsessing over until the right lefty comes along.