I've started to hear some rumblings, as my fellow fans have scanned the young 2007 season carefully and come out with some pronouncements about where the team needs to improve: I've already seen Coco Crisp referred to as Coc0 and Francona's handling of Hinske and Wily Mo Pena criticized in several places.
I agree that Coco has been worrisome but I'm not coming with the disparaging nicknames until he's had some more at-bats. Also, in case anyone cares, I personally am inclined to think it's still far too early in the season to really go house about the use of bench players, just because starters are still getting their innings and bench players don't become key until later on, when the grind makes rest more crucial for the regulars or spots need to be filled because of injuries.
Instead, I've spent most of my time focused on the polished pitching that we've seen come through Fenway in the last week, and how much of it--the vast majority, in fact--belongs to the Red Sox.
It's not just the pitching at the front of the rotation--but let me begin there.
Curt Schilling. Jonathan called him "Big Daddy", and the name fits (aside from the fact that Schilling's practically old enough to be Jonathan's actual dad). Regardless of whether he puts up the best numbers this year, he is the hands-down leader of the pitching staff, both in his work with the younger players (you think Beckett just woke up one day and thought, "Oh, fine, I guess I'll just change speeds more often"?) and in leading by example. Since faltering on Opening Day, Schilling has made the adjustments necessary to rack up 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Making the correct adjustments are, in the end, all you can really ask of a pitcher--and Schilling is still better at it than anybody. You need a guy like that on a staff full of young firerballers; no pitching coach in the world is going to be as effective as a guy who can walk the walk.
Josh Beckett. I don't know how he figured it out. I don't care how he figured it out. But as Chad Finn put it, "I realize Josh Beckett started out pretty well last season, winning his first four starts if I recall correctly, but right now he looks vastly superior to anything we saw from him a year ago. The true test will come when he has to use his curve and changeup to get outs in a crucial situation, but it sure looks like he's evolving into a pitcher from the mule-stubborn thrower he was a season ago." If he keeps this up I might have no choice but to become a Joshie fan. And again--adjustments. I've never been a pitcher of any kind, I can't even imitate a windup correctly, and freely admit I know nothing about what it's like to pitch in any league. But my now years-long obsession with pitching, pitchers and how both work has at least led me to the fairly obvious conclusion that that word--adjustment--is what pitchers talk about most. And it's what I find most interesting to watch, too--that's what it all comes down to, in the end. Even Curt's bloody sock was at its root just an adjustment, to allow for pitching around the ankle injury. It's not as simple as resiliency or velocity or even intelligence--there is no right answer; only pitchers with the right instincts, the ones with the serenity to live with the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: Most people I've talked to and read are still bullish about how he'll finish the season, despite the loss to King Felix. His ability to locate the ball is already drawing him comparisons from very knowledgeable people to everyone from Pedro Martinez to David Cone to a young Mike Mussina. I'd probably place him, numbers-wise, somewhere between Martinez and the others--Pedro is a once-in-a-lifetime player. But what has genuinely reminded me of Pedro the times I've watched Daisuke so far--even in the loss--has been the control, the artistry, and the charisma. Matsuzaka has the perfect mindset to play in Boston and I still don't think we've scratched the surface of his ability yet. This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to be able to say about your third starter.
Tim Wakefield: Wake's last outing, complete with run support from battery compadre Doug Mirabelli, was a textbook example of the potential he has this season as well. If Wake can produce consistently like that, too...well, I don't want to jinx things, but suffice to say that if we can count on four of the five guys in the rotation to perform the way they have in the last week, don't make any plans for the mid to late fall.
Jonathan Papelbon: I've heard some people say we have two aces, and from there choose various combinations of names: Daisuke and Beckett, Schilling and Beckett, etc. Others will say all three fit the bill. Personally, I think we have four aces on the pitching staff, and Jonathan Papelbon may actually be the most crucial.
Bullpen. With Papelbon back in the closer's role, we now have that rarest of baseball wealth--some depth at middle relief. Brendan Donnelly, provided he doesn't start any more fights and cuts back on the hit batsmen, seems a great ray of hope as a setup man as Timlin enters his golden years and I still don't trust Joel Piniero any further than I can throw him. Hideki Okajima is another solid option, and a more reliable lefty than Tito's had to work with in two years.
Manager. Those weapons are for naught without a manager shrewd in deploying them. So far Tito has earned praise from even his harshest critics of last season for his bullpen management, particularly with Papelbon. Even if you're not a Tito fan, you've got to admit he's at least not Grady Little.
The pipeline. Then there are the guys you forget about on April 14, all the potential prospects and question marks that could yet shake out as further valuable pitching weapons for this team. Jon Lester, for example. El Guapo's Ghost raises the possibility of Pawtucket's Devern Hansack playing a role this year. A legit long man or potential addition to the rotation again in Kyle Snyder.
The one question mark remains Julian Tavarez in the fifth spot. Even if he doesn't settle out, though, the Sox have options, options they still have yet to really see an emergent need for after just one start from Tavarez this season. There are already plenty of other teams betting the bank on long shots and prospects; I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, here, but we are an extremely fortunate fan base at the moment with the way our pitching is stacking up, from the first inning to the last, from the big club to the minors (haven't even gotten into Buckholz, for instance, or Papelbon the Younger).
Personally, I believe that pitching is the most important asset for a team to have. I believe pitching and defense win championships, but mostly it's pitching.
Yet it also seems like baseball retains its obsession with offense. I'm already tired of hearing people argue that the Yankees' offense will carry them this season.(There are a number of reasons the Yankees could still be the team to beat in this division, but I fail to understand how anyone can still make the argument that a potent-enough lineup can truly hide a multitude of pitching sins.) Meanwhile, Barry Bonds breaking news is continuing to cut in to game broadcasts and newscasts alike this season. And if you look over the course of baseball history, the game and the league have constantly made adjustments in favor of more offense--the live ball (perhaps even juiced ball in this day and age), the lowering of the mound, steroid-fueled home-run derbies. Chicks dig the long ball, and baseball has catered to that for at least a century.
In his excellent book on pitching, The Head Game, Roger Kahn emphasizes that in the early days of baseball, before there was even a mound, the pitcher was a glorified tee--a catalyst for the hits, running and throwing that would determine the actual outcome of the game. Kahn attributes the transformation of pitchers from underhanded soft-tossers into today's 100-mph dominators to a kind of innate competitive defiance on the part of early practitioners. In other words, the pitcher as we know him today is baseball's self-made man.
As recently as 1998, offense was still making all the major headlines, particularly as the game tried to win back fans following the strike in 1994. But in recent years, pitchers have begun--what else--adjusting, and around the league this season it looks like pitching is making a comeback. Just look at the other performances we as Red Sox fans have seen from opposing teams since Opening Day: Gil Meche opening the season in style for Kansas City against Curt Schilling; Robinson Tejeda robbing Wake of a win in Texas; and of course, Felix Hernandez spoiling Daisuke's special night. It's also easy to overlook that John Lackey and Hector Carrasco pitched reasonably well the last two games for the Angels. It's as if we're beginning to see a new breed of pitcher in response to the continued beef-up in the batters' box, taking shape in the form of young guns like Papelbon, Hernandez et al.
It's all a matter of personal taste, of course, whether you like most to watch the big slugger belt one out or a nimble infielder vacuum up a ground ball on a tricky hop or a pitcher stare down the existential crisis that is each trio of outs. Each of them is doing something at a level of skill that truly boggles the mind, and with each passing season I feel I become more deeply appreciative of all of them. But for my money, it's all about the guy in the middle--the guy who originates each and every play of every game, the guy who combines freakish ability with mental ferocity to keep the game honest. Baseball wouldn't be baseball if hitters just whaled away on mediocrity all day; the worthiness of the hitter's opponent is what makes it a contest. And nothing on the field happens without the pitcher having something to say about it first.
That's why the pitching talent alone on this team makes me so sanguine about our chances and excited for this season, even after a week that saw the Sox shut out twice. Where they were shut out it was not by anemic offense, Coco's struggles notwithstanding, but by dominating pitching. In the long run, that's good for baseball.
And here's what's very good for the Red Sox: In all the games so far, including losses, the Sox staff have let up a grand total of 25 runs. That's including one 7-run and one 8-run game; if you chalk up the 7-run loss, Schilling's first start, as a fluke, and you're left with nine games in which the entire Sox pitching staff has given up a total of 18 runs--two runs a game, less than the best team ERA in the majors this season of 2.69. Even with that Opening Day loss on the books, the Sox team ERA is still best in the AL (2.79; the two teams with better ERAs in the league are National League teams, San Diego and the Mets). I can't look at those numbers right now and have any complaints.