Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Said I wasn’t going to talk about the six-man rotation anymore, but I lied

Will Daisuke Matsuzaka revolutionize American baseball--by becoming the sixth member of the first six-man rotation? Photo from this site.

Turned out that Tuesday was indeed the day the Red Sox revealed their plans for John Smoltz. As expected, Smoltz will make another start for Triple-A Pawtucket tonight before entering the Sox’ rotation next Thursday against the Nationals.

Somewhat surprisingly, Terry Francona said the Sox could employ a six-man rotation for the time being. Not surprising was the careful way in which Francona delivered the message.

“It might be [a six-man rotation] for a time or two through,” Francona told reporters Tuesday. “It certainly could happen. I don’t know that we need to make our rotation out a week or two ahead of time.”

That’s Francona’s well-practiced way of saying you can ask all you want but he ain’t saying squat. But addressing the six-man rotation without actually committing to it is a typically savvy move by Francona and, by extension, Theo Epstein, as well as another example of the increased cautiousness with which Francona and Epstein have operated over the past few years (you can read all about that in the final two chapters of Fighting Words, aha, another plug for the book!).

Francona and Epstein learned long ago it doesn’t make sense to make any declarations in Boston, because to officially change one’s mind is to invite days and days of stories examining why the Sox changed their mind.

In fact, the most pivotal move of the Epstein/Francona era occurred without an official announcement. It was abundantly obvious that Jonathan Papelbon was the Sox’ new closer when he trotted out of the bullpen and preserved a one-run victory by retiring the Rangers in order on just 11 pitches in the Sox’ first save opportunity of the 2006 season. But Francona continued to insist during the subsequent series in Baltimore that the Sox wanted to find a way to return Keith Foulke to his old role.

“The aim is to get Foulke back as the guy where, every time you get to the ninth, you hand him the ball,” Francona said. “I really do want that to be where we end up. This isn’t the passing of the torch. I really would be happy if we can get to that.

“There might be times when the starter goes five, ‘Pap’ can pitch two innings and sort of force my hand to use Foulke in the save, which is good. I want to make sure that when we give him that responsibility, that he’s ready to tackle it, and we’re not hoping that it works or we need a lineout.”

Of course, none of that ever happened and Foulke had already passed the torch to Papelbon, who pitched at least two innings seven times that season but never appeared prior to the eighth inning. Foulke didn’t pitch the ninth inning in a save situation at all in 2006—in fact, he entered in the ninth inning just 10 times in 44 outings and did so with the Sox tied or trailing by three runs or less only three times—and didn’t record his next big league save until 2008, when he pitched for the Athletics following a one-year retirement.

Nor have Francona and Epstein said anything concrete about Nick Green overtaking Julio Lugo at shortstop. Then again, is there a need to confirm the obvious? Green has started 11 of the Sox’ last 15 games and the Sox are 27-9 when he starts at shortstop, as opposed to 10-13 with Lugo. And notice the familiar verbiage used by Francona when he was asked recently how he’s going to juggle Green and Lugo once nominal starter Jed Lowrie returns.

The intentional ambiguity of Tuesday, meanwhile, provides the Sox plenty of flexibility—to either scrap the six-man rotation before it ever actually begins, implement it indefinitely or just stick with it as the temporary solution envisioned by Francona.

“But that wouldn’t be the worst thing for a short period of time,” Francona said. “Again, not for a long period, because guys don’t pitch enough. With days off, the All-Star Break, you have too many good pitchers that won’t pitch enough. But for a short period of time, we could live with that, yeah.”

We’ll have an idea of what’s going to happen by Saturday morning. If Daisuke Matsuzaka pitches poorly again Friday against the Braves—and let’s be bluntly honest, that’s about as likely as a sellout that night at Fenway—then maybe Matsuzaka is either sidelined with a case of Oliver Perez-itis (apparently, it’s catching among Scott Boras clients) or sent to the minors and the six-man rotation never gets off the ground. It’s well worth noting that Smoltz’ first turn in the rotation will come on the day Matsuzaka would typically pitch.

But if Matsuzaka pitches well—or if the Sox can’t convince him to go on the DL, to the bullpen or to Pawtucket—then the six-man rotation is a reality, at least for a little while. And “a time or two through” takes the Sox to the week leading up to the All-Star Break, and if the Sox are doing well with it, why wouldn’t they maintain the unusual alignment until the Break or even beyond?

In addition, as noted below, the Sox’ rotation lines up prior to the All-Star Break in such a fashion that the club can plan for extra rest for the two starters most likely to be selected to the game—Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield—while also ensuring no. 1 starter Josh Beckett starts the first game after the Break with seven days of rest, a reasonable figure given the Sox’ All-Star Break actually lasts four days:

June 16: Wakefield
June 17: Penny
June 18: Lester
June 19: Matsuzaka
June 20: Beckett
June 21: Wakefield
June 22: OFF DAY
June 23: Penny
June 24: Lester
June 25: Smoltz
June 26: Beckett
June 27: Matsuzaka
June 28: Wakefield
June 29: Penny
June 30: Lester

July 1: Smoltz
July 2: OFF DAY
July 3: Beckett
July 4: Matsuzaka
July 5: Wakefield
July 6: Penny
July 7: Lester
July 8: Smoltz
July 9: Beckett
July 10: Matsuzaka
July 11: Wakefield
July 12: Penny

It gets a little more complicated after the Break, since the Sox play six games before their next off-day. To maintain the six-man rotation as constructed prior to the Break would mean Beckett would make his second start of the second half on six days rest. Unless, of course, the Sox keep Beckett on his regular turn at the expense of Matsuzaka:

July 17: Beckett
July 18: Smoltz
July 19: Lester
July 20: Penny
July 21: Wakefield
July 22: Beckett

I won’t bore you by projecting the rest of the season for the second straight day. But don’t be surprised if we’re in projection mode in late July because the six-man rotation is still working, even if nobody ever actually confirms the Sox are sticking with it.

Email Jerry at

No comments:

Post a Comment