Red Sox Keystones

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 05: Pitcher Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Minnesota Twins during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Pennsylvania is the Keystone State. Look at a map of the east coast and you can see why. If you somehow removed Pennsylvania, New York would come crashing down on West Virginia (something I may or may not be in favor of) and all of New England would topple like a Jenga puzzle in the hands of an infant. Thus illustrateth the importance of the keystone. Plainly put, it holds everything up. Without it, everything falls.

If a basketball team loses their star center, a hockey team's goalie goes down, or a football team's quarterback blows out his knee, you don't have to be an analyst to know that most times those teams will be dead in the water. Baseball teams don't really work that way in the sense that no single player supports the weight of an entire team. Even when important players get injured, deep teams can still survive. Look no further than last year's Red Sox for evidence of this. The Sox suffered the great collapse which was, in essence, a team-wide pitching black out, but they sustained multiple injuries which depleted their cache of starting pitchers in order to reach that point.

I don't want to recap the September collapse any more than you want to read about it. The point is there are some players, very valuable players, who can be replaced far more easily than others. This post is about two of the ones who in the opinion of this humble author will be very difficult to replace. In fact, should they get injured, the team would come as close as a baseball team can to toppling like an infant controlled Jenga puzzle.

Here's the thing about Jacoby Ellsbury. He might not be Jacoby Ellsbury. I'm not suggesting he's going to change his name to Giancarlo, his birth certificate will be revealed to be a forgery, or any other such foolishness. Jacoby Ellsbury will be there on Opening Day but Jacoby "32 homers, batting line of .321/.376/.552" Ellsbury may not. WEEI.com's Alex Speier wrote an informative piece on how unprecedented Ellsbury's 2011 campaign was in the annals of baseball history. The short version: it hadn't really happened before in all of baseball history.

Coming into the 2011 season Ellsbury had exhibited an almost total lack of power, slugging .405 over 1500 major league plate appearances. Nobody sane and/or not directly related to Ellsbury was expecting 30+ homers out of the guy. To illustrate this, here is a graph showing how many homers Ellsbury hit for each of the thirteen teams he's played for since high school.


Screen_shot_2012-03-05_at_11

You can see not once, not even in college (the first three data points) did he hit more more than nine homers at any particular stop. Some of you may be concerned I'm being unfair to Ellsbury by not counting total homers per year. Fine. Here's that information:


Screen_shot_2012-03-06_at_12

Same thing. Ellsbury has never had much power. Not in college, not at any level of the minors, not in the Arizona Fall League, and not in the majors. Then last year, he suddenly did. So we must ask the question, is his power sustainable? Sadly there is no real way to know the answer to that question. The projection systems all base their educated guesses on historical comparisons, but as Mr. Speier's article said, there really aren't any good historical comparisons for Jacoby Ellsbury's career path to date.

We can look a bit deeper at his 2011 and see if we can deduce anything useful. As Marc wrote at Baseball Nation, there is data that shows Ellsbury faced an inordinate amount of fastballs last year. Ellsbury has had very good success against fastballs. One would think that pitchers around the league would adjust and start throwing more off speed pitches to him this season. Maybe one of the reasons they didn't is that, according to Fan Graphs, Ellsbury hit pretty much everything with success last year. The one small exception to that is the curveball, but not every pitcher throws a curveball and of the ones who do throw one, not all are particularly good. Also, Ellsbury wasn't that bad against curveballs. I don't see that as a significant stumbling block to Ellsbury repeating his 2011.

Maybe Ellsbury's homer total was padded by lucky homers that barely cleared the fence? Nope. Of Ellsbury's 32 homers, just four of them were listed as Just Enough by ESPN's homerun tracker, meaning they barely had enough steam to get over the wall. The leader in Just Enoughs last year in the AL was Miguel Cabrera with 16. ESPN also tracks Lucky homers, presumably a category that counts homers that wrap around the Pesky Pole or some the equivalent thereof. Ellsbury had three of those. Curtis Granderson led the AL with five. If you take away all of Ellsbury's Just Enoughs and his Luckys you still have a guy who hit 25 homers last year and did it without any help from lady luck.

Ellsbury's BABIP was a bit high (.336) but not ridiculous for a guy with his speed. It looks like Jacoby Ellsbury wasn't lucky so much as very very good. Jeff Zimmerman of Fan Graphs agrees, saying Ellsbury just hit the ball much harder last season. If Jacoby Ellsbury is this good there is no way the Red Sox could adequately replace him were they to lose him for any significant length of time. The drop off between he and whomever his replacement would be, assuming the Red Sox don't trade for Curtis Granderson, would be too much.

* * *

Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are the two co-aces of the Red Sox pitching staff, but to me, Clay Buchholz is the keystone. Both Beckett and Lester have for the most part maintained their health. Beckett has averaged 211 innings pitched in his career, and 185 in his career with Boston to date. Lester has averaged 211. Clay Buchholz has thrown over 92 innings once since joining the Red Sox rotation in 2008.

A significant part of that problem is under-performance, not injuries. But one way or the other, the question still lingers. Can Clay Buchholz A) pitch well and B) stay healthy all season? If HH goes down today the Red Sox have almost too many candidates to replace him, but if he is lost in June most of the list of replacements will be far shorter thanks to injury, lack of performance, or most likely, opt-outs in their contracts.

I'm on record as saying I like the Red Sox moving Daniel Bard to the rotation and I think he can be successful there. While I feel my optimism is on solid ground, there are fair questions to be asked about Bard's durability. That's your number four starter as of now. The group of fifth starter candidates is intriguing in the sense that if you assemble twenty or so guys, at least one of them is likely to have a an acceptable year. But when it comes to October baseball none of those are pitchers who we should be comfortable handing the ball to in an important game.

Teams can win with two excellent pitchers and little else in the rotation, but it's tough, and in this year's version of the AL East pulling off such feat gets significantly more difficult. Buchholz is the guy that lets you not worry so much about the fifth starters because, hey, they're only fifth starters. Buchholz is the guy who lets you be optimistic about having Daniel Bard in the rotation. Buchholz is the guy...

If Beckett or Lester went down it would be devastating, likely more so than if Buchholz was injured because they're better pitchers than he is. But because of their track records, it's much easier to count on them than it is to count on Clay. If Buch falls, the whole rotation could come tumbling down behind him.

* * *

The power those two players possess, Ellsbury in his ability to maintain a decent copy of his 2011 breakout year, and Buchholz's ability to both stay on the mound and come close to his career 120 ERA+, might be enough to deep-six the Red Sox this year. But if both come through there could be a duck boat ride waiting at the end of the rainbow.

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