Better Late than Nava

Daniel Nava

For a guy making only $15 K more than the major-league minimum, and who wasn’t even guaranteed a roster spot during Spring Training, Daniel Nava is making quite an impact. After smashing rousing, go-ahead home runs in the home opener and in the Sox’ first game home after the Marathon tragedy, he’s continued to collect big hits all season with a professional approach that’s exemplary of this team’s no-BS style.

Through the Sox’ game on July 11th, in which Nava hit the game-winning single in the top of the 10th, the left fielder was hitting .293 and ranked 3rd and 4th on the club with 10 long balls and 52 RBIs, respectively. Up until a recent cold streak dropped his average below .300, his name was beginning to surface in All-Star talk, at least on local sports radio; Tigers manager Jim Leyland, this year’s AL All-Star manager, said Nava was still one of the toughest omissions from this year’s squad.

Nava’s emergence from that slump solidified his production this year as legit rather than lucky. It was hard for some to believe what they saw from him as he hit well over .300 for the season’s first two months; his pedigree, a player who didn’t even make his college team initially, certainly didn’t scream “MLB slugger.” But after battling back from a wicked skid that dropped his average almost 30 points; Nava has proven that he can hang with the big boys. His batting eye is impeccable, helping him post a .380 OBP. His at-bat during the Sox’ 10-inning win over Seattle was the epitome of his game: 0-5 and facing Todd Wilhemsen’s overpowering fastball, Nava hung tough and stayed within himself. He wasn’t enough of a natural hitter to turn on one of Wilhelmsen’s 98 MPH heaters, so he hung back on a breaking ball and grounded it sharply up the middle to score the eventual winning run. That same diligence has helped his defense improve from a liability to a considerable skill.

Having his first standout season at age 30, Nava is something of a late bloomer. But that he bloomed at all is a testament to his dedication, his attitude, and his love for the game. Hitting major-league pitching is almost genetic; it’s something many great players seem born to do. Nava isn’t among them, but he’s willed his way to the top. Better late than Nava.

Feat without Clay: Sox Prove Mettle sans Buchholz

Buchholz

Long time no see, Clay.

The Red Sox are closing in on a month without Clay Buchholz, and there’s no indication that his return is imminent. John Farrell hasn’t even ruled out a post-All Star re-activation, which would make it a full month and a half without our ace. But don’t tell the rest of the team that.

Unlike many teams would in the same situation, the Sox have played admirably. Some seemingly strong clubs are mediocre teams who go roughly .500 four days out of the week, then chalk up a near-automatic ‘W’ on nights when their ace takes the mound. This doesn’t sound like too impressive a strategy, but a team that does so – roughly .500 when their ace isn’t pitching, closer to 1.000 when he is – ends up with a winning percentage in the .600 neighborhood, only to be unmasked as a fraud by an injury to their messianic star. The Sox have had that savior this year in Buchholz; they’ve lost only one game he’s started, and he hasn’t lost any. But they aren’t slouching when he doesn’t pitch, either.

Since Clay last pitched, the Sox are 11-9, including a couple tough losses in Baltimore and Detroit, which works out to a .550 winning percentage. Over that span, Ryan Dempster and John Lackey have combined for 6 quality starts in 8 outings, including four consecutive performances of 7IP or more and 2 ER or fewer from one-time goat Lackey. The Sox have scored exactly as many runs as they’ve let up, 95 each over 20 games, but despite a minor home run drought, I don’t think anyone would say the bats are slumping: Jacoby Ellsbury is in the midst of a 12-game hitting streak, Pedey and Papi are 3rd and 7th in the American League in hitting, and Jose Iglesias is still over .400. The two series in which the Sox really struggled were against Baltimore and Detroit – series that a Buchholz outing would have totally changed the complexion of. Suffice it to say that on June 8th, the last time we saw Clay Buchholz, the Sox were 1.5 games ahead of New York for first place. Now (albeit with a little help from the Yankees’ coach-turned-pumpkin of a season – bye bye, Texiera), the Sox are 3.5 games ahead of Baltimore. With Jon Lester hopefully on the comeback trail and the offense continuing to rake, the Sox can win without Buchholz. So just imagine what they can do with him.

A Load of Bull: The Bullpen Needs to Step it Up

Bullpen

If only Andrew Miller’s command were as good as his beard

When Ben Cherington added Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara to the bullpen this offseason, it looked like he’d created a real strength for the team. Those two arms solidified a stable that already included Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow. The Sox pen was on track to be one of the best in the AL.

The Sox bullpen really should be good. Given the talent it’s stocked with, the pitching expertise of Juan Nieves and John Farrell, and the team-first attitude that’s helped bullpens in Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the Sox pen looks on paper to be an immovable object. Some of the numbers testify that it has been as much; Sox relievers have a 3.19 ERA, certainly a strong number. But the passable statistics belie a bullpen that has blinked in tough situations.

It’s impossible to talk about the bullpen’s struggles without noting the Sox’ 9th inning implosion. Joel Hanrahan doesn’t even deserve discussion, and although Andrew Bailey initially looked to be a decent replacement, he hit a snag when he blew a save against Tampa Bay and didn’t manage to recover before losing his job this past weekend. The absolute futility of Bailey’s pitching was pretty amazing, with the three-walk performance in Tampa and the instantaneous collapse in Detroit standing out. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, as far as we know. He just hasn’t been able to take the heat, folding completely under the pressure of a normal save situation.

Bailey isn’t the only one who hasn’t pitched the way he should. The Sox bullpen as a whole has underperformed its talent, with a pedestrian 11-10 record (the Yankees bullpen is 12-7). That’s ten times that the pen has let a game get away, not counting blown saves or games they couldn’t keep close. Take the infamous Nava-drop game in Detroit; yes, they were on the wrong end of a blown call, but instead of responding with confidence, they let the game slip away.

Closers aside, the pen has actually been pretty solid, but it could be much better. The continuing struggles in high-leverage situations, where good bullpens thrive, are a mystery. Many great closers struggle in non-save situations: they need to feed on the pressure. Sox relievers have been doing the opposite, letting the pressure eat them alive. For a good ‘pen, that’s a load of bull.

Pop Quiz: Red Sox Shortstop

Red Sox shortstop

John Farrell mulls the answers to my pop quiz

Let me first say that I love John Farrell and his no-BS, team-first style. That said it seems to me that he would have done exceptionally poorly on the following pop quiz. See how your answers stack up:

1. Which is a better batting average, .223 or .449?

2. Is it better to strike out 58 times in 184 at-bats, or 13 times in 71 at-bats?

3. You have a choice between a good defender and an amazing defender. Who do you pick?

4. Should the money on a guy’s contract affect whether you play him or not, or should you put your best team on the field every day?

5. If you have a prospect that’s finally showing the skills you’ve been asking for, is it better to give him consistent playing time on a daily basis, or to defer to an aging veteran with a knack for striking out in the clutch?

6. Who should be the Red Sox shortstop: Stephen “Stephanie” Drew, or Jose Iglesias?

Every game that Stephen Drew takes the field instead of Jose Iglesias is a game the Sox are not trying their best to win. It’s abundantly clear at this point that Jose Iglesias is the better of the two players, both defensively and offensively. Even if Drew picks it up at the plate and Iglesias cools off (both are probably inevitable), you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that Drew (.190 against lefties) is the better hitter; most of his home runs have come late in blowouts with nothing on the line. Even if Drew does prove to be a marginally better hitter, which I doubt, Iglesias’s defensive contributions more than outweigh that.

I don’t hate Stephen Drew; he’s a passable shortstop. But Jose Iglesias is more than a passable shortstop; Farrell owes it to the team to play him every day, and the team owes it to Iglesias to give him the playing time he’s earned. Right now, the only thing keeping Drew on the field is his $9.5 mil contract, and last I checked, a contract doesn’t help your batting average too much. The Sox should trade Drew for a utility guy so that he doesn’t complain in the clubhouse about playing time, because if the Sox (best record in the AL, second-best in the bigs) are serious about playing for October, it’s clear who should be Dustin Pedroia’s double play partner.

All Eyes on Jon Lester

Jon Lester

The Sox need a return to form from Lester if they are to compete this season and beyond

First the AC joint, now the neck: it seems like Clay Buchholz’s shoulders are feeling the weight of the Red Sox season. But in April, he at least had help. Looking like his old self, Jon Lester started the year 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA and 23 K’s over 26 innings.  It’s been downhill from there. Lester didn’t allow more than five hits in any of his first four starts; he’s allowed five hits or fewer only twice since.  After imploding in Tampa on Tuesday, his ERA had risen to 4.12.

During his peak years, Lester had exceptional command within the strike zone, which led to lots of strikeouts and weak contact. But his HR/9 rate and opponent average, indicators of strike-zone command, spiked to 1.10 and .269 last year, both career worsts. Compounding Lester’s loss of fastball command were a drop in velocity and the loss of his nasty cutter. These explain Lester’s lack of strikeouts; he whiffed only 7.28 per 9 last year. If Jon Lester’s recent struggles represent a regression to his 2012 form, he could be in trouble.

What did Lester do so well at the beginning of the season? His cutter returned, his velocity stabilized, and most importantly, he commanded his fastball. He walked only four batters over 26 innings to begin the season, and didn’t give up a homer. Opponents hit Lester at .198 over his first four starts. But since then, his walk, HR rate and opponent average have climbed. Why? Lester’s velocity has remained relatively consistent and his cutter has been there for him. This leaves us with a classic culprit: fastball command. His dismal start in Tampa (4.2 IP, 8 H, 7 BB, 3HR) was exemplary of this: Lester couldn’t find the zone with his sinker and got killed on stray fastballs. Unlike last year, it’s not a drop in velocity or the lack of a cutter that’s hurting him, and this is cause for optimism. Fastball command comes and goes, but Juan Nieves’ success with Lester in April suggests that he should be able to get the lefty going. Lester’s two best starts since April, a one-hit shutout of the Jays and seven innings of 2-run ball at the Trop, have both been games in which he could spot his fastball. Interestingly, in both starts, Lester averaged 91.9 MPH on his fastball, tied for his second slowest average fastball of the year. It’s possible that Lester needs to sacrifice speed for control. The bottom line is that his recent struggles have been caused by fastball command, something that he should be able to regain.

Jose Iglesias: Nothing More to Prove

Jose Iglesias

All glove, no bat; it’s a common, but often career-threatening classification for a middle infielder. With some basic athleticism, you can learn to field; with practice, you will inevitably improve, and many do. But practice alone isn’t enough to help you hit major league pitching; there’s something about hitting that you either have or you don’t. The result is a bunch of guys who are all glove, no bat.

That’s what we all thought of Jose Iglesias, and for a while, he didn’t do too much to prove us wrong. But Iglesias’s glove, the fielding ability that earned him the nickname “Silk Hands” (Best nickname ever? Maybe), was so spectacular that the Red Sox were forced to be optimistic about his development at the plate. They never claimed he’d be a good hitter; they just assured us that he’d be a passable hitter. When that’s all the ever-sanguine front office can muster, it’s pretty clear that a prospect doesn’t have too much of a future at the plate. Iglesias did little to disprove this when he hit a miserable .118 in 68 at-bats with the Sox last year. He looked overmatched by major-league fastballs, wasn’t disciplined, and had no pop. All glove, no bat and that wasn’t going to fly. The Sox wanted Iglesias at short, but he had to hit.

So he did. I’m not sure what switch he flicked, but Jose Iglesias has become a hitter. It’s not steroids – steroids help guys who can already hit the ball hit it harder. Iglesias went from looking lost at the plate to being a mature major league hitter. The .118 batting average? He’s at .446 with a 13 – game hit streak. Overmatched and without discipline? Iglesias has struck out twice in his last 10 games while walking five times and roping 17 hits. No pop? He has a homer (off Hiroki Kuroda, no less) and seven doubles in 6 more at-bats than it took him to hit a homer and two doubles last season. Ok, a career .257 minor-league hitter probably isn’t going to hit .450 for the rest of his time in the bigs. But even if Iglesias has to come back to earth, he’s not going to fall back to where he was. The one-time all glove, no bat shortstop is demonstrating abilities at the plate that he just didn’t have before. His swing has become a pretty, compact stroke that helps him catch up to inside pitches instead of popping them up; he’s hitting .536 off lefties. He approaches each at bat with grit, fouling off tough pitches and refusing to chase. Iglesias is going to cool off, but when he does, with his newfound tools, he’s going to be a much better than before – dare I say it, maybe even a good hitter.

And yet he’s not our starting shortstop. He has amassed this amazing stretch while playing third (and playing it brilliantly), but when Will Middlebrooks returns from the disabled list, Jose won’t have a spot in the starting lineup. John Farrell will get him some at-bats, bless his heart, but if the Sox are serious about making a run at their first playoff appearance in 4 years, shortstop should be Silk Hands’ to lose. Play Stephanie Drew at utility, trade him, whatever – Iglesias needs to play every day, because now, not only can he do this

Jose Iglesias

…but also this.

Jose Iglesias

 It would be a shame to miss out on both, because he’s got nothing more to prove.