Just what has caused this terrible starting pitching by the Red Sox?
The pitchers? The catchers? The pitching coaches?
All of the above?
It’s more than a local story. It’s been on the minds of a lot of people around baseball, watching from afar and shrugging as well.
“We’re all big boys,’’ said Indians pitcher Derek Lowe. “We’re responsible for preparing to face each team. We’re responsible for what we throw. We can shake it off if we don’t like it. What the catcher calls is only a suggestion. We throw the baseball. It’s on us.’’
Lowe was responding to a question I asked about the role of the catcher in all of this. He knows very little about the current Red Sox situation, but he did throw to Jason Varitek for years, and what he had to say was interesting.
“For years, I didn’t have to think,’’ said Lowe. “Tek did the thinking for me. But since I’ve been gone, I’ve done a lot of preparing before games. I do my homework. I know what I want to do out there.
“I’ve been with a lot of good catchers since, like Russell Martin and Brian McCann and Carlos Santana. I didn’t know them as well as I knew Tek, but at this stage of my career, I know what I’m doing out there. If things go wrong, it’s me.’’
Even Josh Beckett dismissed the notion that different catchers and pitching coaches have caused problems with the Red Sox rotation.
“We’re big boys, we have to make adjustments,’’ said Beckett. “When things are clicking for me, I can make an adjustment from one pitch to the next.’’
Still, the numbers are interesting.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s catcher ERA is 5.87 - dead last among starters, and almost a run and a half worse than the catcher above him, Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy at 4.52.
Is Salty not calling good games?
None of the pitchers are saying that, though you’re hearing that the catchers don’t seem to be in lockstep with the pitchers.
“Catchers do make a difference,’’ said Dennis Eckersley. “Especially when you’re going bad. You need someone sometimes to lead you out of it. You need someone with leadership who just takes it by the horns. A catcher can make a difference.
“Now, I will say that ultimately it’s on you, the pitcher. When you’re a veteran, you should have an idea of what you’re doing.’’
There’s a feeling around the game that the Sox miss Varitek. And there’s a feeling that they gave up on him to go with Kelly Shoppach.
“He did a lot for that team in terms of getting the staff ready for each team,’’ said an American League general manager. “They depended on him like no team depended on a catcher anywhere in baseball, with the possible exception of St. Louis, where Yadier Molina seems to have that effect.’’
Buck Martinez, who caught in the majors for 17 years, managed the Blue Jays, and is now a broadcaster, feels a catcher can make a difference with a staff.
“The situation is this: For years, Varitek took care of so many things for that pitching staff,’’ said Martinez. “They trusted him completely.
“And his preparation of a pitching staff was legendary. Probably one of the best in the history of the game. He pored through all the scouting reports and material and went through video and meetings. He had his binder and he studied and studied.
“Basically, he took care of the theory. The pitchers needed to take care of the execution.
“Now they’re probably dealing with the pitchers having to think a little bit more about what they’re throwing and the sequence they’re throwing it in. There’s a trust issue that has to redevelop, and that takes time with new catchers.’’
That trust exists between certain pitching staffs and catchers. Molina has the lowest catcher ERA in baseball at 3.02, and Cardinal pitchers love throwing to him. He is followed by John Buck in Miami at 3.07 and Matt Wieters in Baltimore at 3.08. Washington catcher Wilson Ramos is at 3.16.
But again, is it the starting pitching for the Cardinals, Marlins, Orioles, and Nationals that’s really good, or does the catcher add to it?
Is there anything to be learned by exploring the pitching coaches?
The Red Sox seemed to have the most success under John Farrell. But don’t forget Farrell’s last season, 2010. While Jon Lester won 19 games and Clay Buchholz won 17, a few pitchers had down years, including Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Jonathan Papelbon, and Beckett.
It appeared that Curt Young was just passing through in 2011. No pitcher really had a breakout season.
Bob McClure has come in this season and is just getting to know his pitchers. He has his own ideas of how things should be done, what should be thrown at what time.
Three different coaches, three different styles.
Farrell was forceful. Maybe he intimidated. And maybe that’s what this team needs. Young was more laidback. McClure seems to be in between. He can get into a pitcher’s face if he has to. Has he yet?
And there is this whole “walking on eggshells’’ thing. It seems that if each guy on this Boston staff isn’t handled with kid gloves, he’ll break into a thousand pieces.
You see it in the way Bobby Valentine talks. He always gives the positive version of events when we all know there’s not much positive to speak of. So if he says what we all think, the pitcher will fall apart and cry?
The Red Sox had a chance to hire Rick Peterson, whose pitchers always seem to get better. But they passed, and Peterson is now the organizational pitching coach for the Orioles.
“A pitching coach and the catchers are huge for the performance of the pitcher,’’ Peterson said. “This is our job. This is what we get paid for - to make our pitchers better. And our job is to also make our catchers better.
“I can’t tell you the hours I spent with Lucroy in Milwaukee and Ramon Hernandez back when he was a young catcher in Oakland, on how to call a game. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process.’’
Eckersley remembers the impact that former Oakland and St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan had on him.
“He could be mean,’’ said Eckersley with a laugh. “He made me better. He didn’t say much, but when he did, you listened and you learned.’’
Is it that for so many years Varitek was simply taken for granted? That pitchers didn’t have to think on their own as much because Varitek would lead them through it? And now you take away that cushion, and what you’re left with are catchers who are trying to emulate Varitek but so far are falling short?
In the end, as so many people we spoke to indicated, the responsibility rests on the pitcher. It is why he is paid millions of dollars.
And right now, the Red Sox rotation is one of the most dysfunctional units in all of sports.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Kapler takes a step away
From the Where Are They Now Dept.: Gabe Kapler is involved with a start-up company in Los Angeles that launches next month. He said he is not at liberty to disclose the nature of the business, but it has a link to baseball.
This doesn’t mean Kapler will abandon a post-playing career in the game; he said it merely is on the back burner as he raises his 10- and 12-year-old sons.
“It’s something that will always be there for me and I plan on having a career in baseball,’’ he said.
Kapler played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox and was on the 2004 championship team. He was considered one of the leaders of the team.
“I had the time of my life with the Red Sox,’’ said Kapler. “I’ll never forget that experience. Terry Francona will always have a special place in my heart, and he knows that.’’
Kapler also managed the Greenville Drive in the Red Sox farm system for a year, but resumed his playing career a year later. He was released by the Dodgers in March 2011. He said he has had offers to return as a player but turned them down.
Why business over baseball right now?
“Two reasons,’’ he said. “First of all, this is a start-up company and the ceiling is so high. There’s so much upside. And it allows me to stay in LA to see my kids. They’re involved in so many things right now that I want to be a part of experiencing that. When the time is right, baseball will be there for me.’’
Cubs president Theo Epstein holds Kapler in high regard, and that could be a spot for his managerial career to resume in the future. The current Red Sox situation often prompts mention of Kapler. They don’t have many leaders like him in the clubhouse.
“That’s flattering to hear, but it’s never one person,’’ said Kapler. “It has to be a collective group coming together for a common goal. That’s the only way good things happen. It has to start at ownership and trickle all the way down.’’
Apropos of nothing
1. How about the strange circumstances of Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth? Between them, they signed for $268 million in the winter of 2010. Since then, they have been either busts or injured. And right now, both are injured. Werth had surgery on his broken left wrist and is out for about 12 weeks. Crawford is recovering from a ligament sprain in his elbow and could be out another two months.
2. A comment by Ben Cherington took me aback last week. He basically said that when Kevin Youkilis came back, he would not lose his job to injury. Shouldn’t that be the manager’s call?
3. I’ve asked before: Could Youkilis become Boston’s Michael Young?
4. The Rangers probably wouldn’t dare lose Josh Hamilton in free agency. If he should seek to go elsewhere, however, the Dodgers - with their new-found dollars - could be the team for him. A Hamilton-Matt Kemp combo? That would allow the Dodgers to let Andre Ethier head into the market.
5. Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia got into a bit of a chit-chat with manager John Farrell when 45-year-old Omar Vizquel pinch-hit for him. The Jays had the go-ahead run at third, Colby Rasmus on first, and Arencibia was in the batter’s box when Farrell called him back. Vizquel popped up a bunt, but Kelly Johnson eventually drove in the run with a single. “I was upset,’’ said Arencibia. “I was upset as a competitor. Throughout my career, I’ve always driven in runs. I’ve been a guy who thrives in those situations. As far as the decision goes, he’s our manager and I support every decision and all I want to do at the end of the day is win. As a player, does it kind of rattle your head a little bit? Yeah. It’s never really happened to me in my career.’’
6. Yep, the late Carl Beane was one of a kind. Great voice. Loved his work.
7. Hamilton’s staggering night Tuesday - 5 for 5, 4 homers, 8 RBIs - gave him 14 homers and 36 RBIs through the Rangers’ first 30 games. Only three other players since 1920 (when RBIs became an official stat) have had 14 homers and 36 RBIs through 30 games: Cy Williams of the 1923 Phillies (16/44), Albert Pujols of the 2006 Cardinals (16/36), and Alex Rodriguez of the 2007 Yankees (14/37). Hamilton’s 14 homers in 30 games are a club record, surpassing Frank Howard’s 12 in 1968. His 36 RBIs tied Juan Gonzalez (1998) for most through 30 games.
Updates on nine
1. Chris Iannetta, C, Angels - He is down for a few weeks after wrist surgery, and the Angels, once rich in catching, are scrambling to find a No. 1. Iannetta was hitting .197 with three homers and nine RBIs. Backup Bobby Wilson also has struggled. Hank Conger is on the DL down in Triple A with an elbow injury. That leaves John Hester and Robinzon Diaz in Triple A, and Alberto Rosario in Double A. Did Jason Varitek and Pudge Rodriguez really want to retire?
2. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies - His admission that he threw at Bryce Harper because he was a rookie has created all sorts of tense feelings. Baseball people from Jim Leyland to Nationals GM Mike Rizzo have lambasted him. Now Hamels is the subject of inquiries from the Blue Jays. “The Jays are looking to do something big,’’ said an American League GM. “I just don’t see the Phillies bailing out on Hamels. They can still win it.’’
3. Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox - Could there ever be a market for a pitcher who earns $15.75 million a year (with two years left after this one) and is no longer performing up to that contract? “I would say yes,’’ said an AL GM, “but only if the Red Sox were willing to eat more than half of the contract. He’s not what he was, but he could still help a contending team.’’
4. Chien Ming-Wang, RHP, Nationals - Close to coming off a rehab assignment at Syracuse, Wang is going to be an interesting addition for a Nationals team that already has five solid starters. They would rather deal lefty John Lannan (also in Syracuse) but teams appear more interested in Wang, who has rediscovered that hard sinker. The Nationals are creating a nice competition on their staff, as Wang and Lannan could push the other five. The Red Sox wanted to do this with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Cook, before Cook got hurt. Now Dice-K may bump one of the starters out of the rotation.
5. Ryan Lavarnway, C, Red Sox - One thing he is adjusting to, according to an organizational official, is catching five or six days a week in Pawtucket. This is a first for Lavarnway, who hasn’t broken out with the bat yet (.263, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs). One theory is that he’s not as fresh having to catch so much. He apparently is making the adjustment slowly but surely. So far his defense has been fine.
6. Travis d’Arnaud, C, Las Vegas - The Blue Jays’ top catching prospect is off to a good start. Said a National League scout who spent four days watching him: “Put it this way, he’d be Boston’s best catcher right now. He’s ready for the big leagues. Now it’s a matter of the Jays making room for him.’’
7. Kevin Youkilis, 3B, Red Sox - If he can show he’s healthy, there’s a strong third base market out there for the Red Sox. According to a National League special assignment scout, “The Giants are one of a few teams who are actively looking. They would love a guy with some power. The Phillies are looking, and even though the Rays say they aren’t, don’t be surprised if they try to pick someone up.’’
8. Manny Ramirez, DH, A’s - Heads up, Sacramento. He may begin his minor league rehab assignment May 20. Ramirez has been serving a 50-game suspension for his second drug violation. Oddsmakers are trying to figure out when he will come up with his third.
9. Freddy Sanchez, 2B/3B, Giants - The former Red Sox farmhand is being used at third base while Pablo Sandoval is on the DL. While the Giants have their radar up for a third baseman, the oft-injured Sanchez also played there in 2006, when he won the NL batting title.
From the Bill Chuck files: “In a comparison of two relievers who became starters in 2012: Neftali Feliz has a 3.38 ERA, a 1.156 WHIP, and is averaging 4.5 walks and 4.3 whiffs per 9 innings. Daniel Bard has a 4.83 ERA, a 1.516 WHIP, and is averaging 4.5 walks and 6.0 whiffs per 9 innings.’’ Also, “Marco Scutaro, who hit .276 for the Sox with runners in scoring position last season, is hitting .100 (2 for 20) for the Rockies this year. Meanwhile, Scutaro’s replacement, Mike Aviles, has a .357 RISP average, second only to Adrian Gonzalez’s .412 for Boston.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Juan Beniquez (62), Bobby Valentine (62), Terry Hughes (63), and Billy MacLeod (70).Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.