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Series Preview: Red Sox Face Blue Jays In Need Of A Turning Point

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At some point in the season, there will be a turning point for the Red Sox. They'll go on a tear, win a bunch in a row, and play at the level we expected of them for most of the remaining season. I have confidence in this.

The problem is: when? Eleven games and nine losses into the season, the answer needs to be "soon".

The good news is that, if the Red Sox are looking for a good starting point, thanks to a couple of days off, they should have one against the Blue Jays.

It's been an unspectacular start to the year for the Bluebirds, all-be-it better than the one we've been having down here. At 6-6, the Blue Jays have been a team living and dying on the smallest of margins. Since their 19-4 beatdown of the Twins in the first two games of the season, seven of the Blue Jays' ten games have been decided by one run, and another couple by just two. The only outlier: their 8-3 win over the Mariners on Wednesday.

What does that mean for the Jays? Realistically, it means they've been playing better baseball than their record suggests. At +17, their run differential is second only to Texas in the American League, and good for fifth in the MLB. This comes, surprisingly, despite the continued struggles of some of their best players.

Really, the Blue Jays in general are a bizarre BABIP phenomenon. While their team mark of .305 isn't enough to set off alarms, the way they've gotten to that point just doesn't make a ton of sense. For some reason, in Toronto, it's entirely feast or famine. Of the fourteen players who have received plate appearances in Toronto this year, seven have a wOBA over .400, and six have one under .300. Of the seven over .400, all have BABIPs over .360, with five coming in over .400. For those below, not a one breaks .300.

There is some reason to worry, though, that these numbers won't just even out. Edwin Encarnacion's .289 BABIP is actually above his career average, while this would be Aaron Hill's second straight year with an insanely low figure (though he is hitting more line drives). Adam Lind, too, has not been completely unlucky, and it's possible that his .268 figure is actually his norm while 2008 and 2009's .317 and .323 marks were the aberrations. 

What has no signs of flukiness is Toronto's staff: a group of very solid young starters that could be the basis of a number of very strong Jays teams in the future. The good news is that they're not the most experienced bunch in the world, which could lead to some troubles against a strong Red Sox lineup. The bad news is, three of them are southpaws. 

As for the Red Sox, well, that's what makes this series one of their best shots at getting some momentum and turning their season around. Thanks to the two days off, the Sox have had an opportunity to reset their rotation, and will start the series off with Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester.

Game 1: Clay Buchholz vs. Brett Cecil

One thing you'll notice about these Jays starters is that there's not a lot of history for some of them against the Red Sox. The same cannot be said for Brett Cecil, who even at 24 has a solid 84 plate appearances coming against current Red Sox. The numbers in said appearances, however, are not nearly as solid. The Red Sox could be sitting pretty tonight, as they enter the game hitting a combined .382/.429/.724 off the young lefty.

Surprisingly, these numbers come from some of the players who just can't traditionally hit lefties. Carl Crawford is 4-for-12 with a double, triple, and homer. J.D. Drew has a pair of homers off of him, and David Ortiz adds another to the mix. The only ones who haven't killed him are, surprisingly, Jed Lowrie and Dustin Pedroia. Adrian Gonzalez, too, has low numbers, but that's just in three appearances. 

Honestly, it will be interesting to see what lineup Francona uses tonight. Drew, Ellsbury, and Crawford all have good numbers off of him, but none can compare to Darnell McDonald's .714 average. One thing that's for sure: Jason Varitek should take over behind the plate tonight. He's got two homers off Cecil in just four trips to the plate.

On the other side of things, there's Clay Buchholz, who just does mean things to the Toronto Blue Jays. 26 strikeouts to 7 walks, and a .611 career OPS against has to have Red Sox fans feeling good tonight. If there's one major danger in the lineup, though, it's Adam Lind, who seems to have Clay figured out tonight. If he's batting after Yunel Escobar, who seems to see Clay extremely well (three walks, zero strikeouts), then it could be all the more perilous.

Game 2: Josh Beckett vs. Jo-Jo Reyes

Jo-Jo Reyes is pretty much the weak link on this Blue Jays rotation. At 26, Jo-Jo has bounced around the majors and minors, spending most of his career with the Braves where he's been the subject of such encouraging headlines as "Jo-Jo Reyes Mercifully Disabled".

The Red Sox haven't seen much of him at all, though Mike Cameron and Adrian Gonzalez have had some decent production against him in limited appearances. But he's not someone to be afraid of, unless you fear soft-tossing lefties like most Red Sox fans have come to.

Josh Beckett, meanwhile, is coming off one of the greatest starts in recent memory--an eight-inning demolition of the New York Yankees that has Red Sox fans remembering it's another odd-numbered year. If he wants to keep the momentum going, though, he's going to have to do so against a team with a few guys who he just hasn't been able to get out throughout his career.

John McDonald, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Travis Snider, and Jose Bautista have combined for a 1.353 OPS against Josh Beckett over 78 plate appearances, and while some of that is the result of Beckett getting killed in his terrible 2010 (23 plates appearances, 1.643 OPS against the group), they were still plenty good against him even when he was doing well against other teams.

Game 3: Jon Lester vs. Jesse Litsch

It's hard to know what to expect from Jesse Litsch. After a few seasons where he outperformed his peripherals (decent though they were in 2008) to start his career, Litsch went on the DL, undergoing Tommy John Surgery in 2009, and then struggled in his return last year. So far, he's off to a hot start in 2011, but whether this is a breakout or a blip is hard to say. His numbers are nothing special against the Red Sox either way, with Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia's strong results being the only real outliers.

That would be all-well-and-good for the Jays if Jon Lester weren't Jon Lester. But he is, and for once, he seems to be sticking to that even in April. His numbers against the Jays are the same as his numbers against most teams--impressive. And while Toronto can stack the lineup some with players like Jayson Nix, John McDonald, and Corey Patterson--all of whom have had some success in smaller sample sizes against Lester--their best hitters just can't seem to get much going against the Red Sox ace.

Game 4: Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Ricky Romero

You might think that the Sox are going with Daisuke over Lackey because they want to waste his disaster game against one of the better young pitchers in all of baseball. You might think this is a game the Sox are just punting. You would be wrong. This is a game the Red Sox can win--perhaps even should win.

You see, nobody shuts down the Blue Jays like Daisuke does, and nobody hits Ricky Romero like the Red Sox do. 

Take a guess at who has the best OPS against Daisuke Matsuzaka on the Blue Jays. The answer is Aaron Hill. Now take a guess at what that batting line looks like, keeping in mind that there's almost always at least one guy on a team that looks like Albert Pujols against any given pitcher. .350/.450/.550? No. .300/.400/.500? Guess again. .280/.350/.450? Too high.

The correct answer is .200/.259/.480 in 27 plate appearances. That is the best the Blue Jays can muster against Matsuzaka. As a team, they've hit .153/.205/.297 against him over 128 plate appearances with 36 strikeouts and 8 walks. They make Daisuke look like what we thought he could be.

Meanwhile, Ricky Romero can look forward to facing a lineup with four guys who have an OPS over 1.000 against him in 12-or-more at bats. Add in Jacoby Ellsbury (.885 OPS), Jed Lowrie (1.100 in six appearances), Jason Varitek (three walks in four trips to the plate) and maybe give Carl Crawford a day off in favor of Mike Cameron, and you've got the perfect group for taking out Romero.

When it comes right down to it, this is the best shot the Red Sox are likely to get in a while. The Jays have been an impressive team so far, no doubt, but this is kind of like what the Rangers series was for the Red Sox: bad matchup after bad matchup. Hopefully, the Sox can be the ones to take advantage this time.