The real reason Red Sox fans should be concerned right now
Josh Beckett and Boston's other back-end starters are big question marks
Phil Hughes' decreased velocity during spring training is still an issue
Home teams have a 55-35 record this season, much higher than normal
Go ahead, Boston: worry.
Don't worry because your team is 0-6 with the Yankees coming to Fenway, or because it is hitting .181, or especially because of the overplayed stat that no team that lost its first six games reached the postseason. We have played 3.7 percent of the season. If you want to write off the 96.3 percent of the season that remains because of a statistical oddity, you believe in quirks more than you do baseball.
Here's why Boston should be worried: its starting pitching might not be good enough based on large samples. This worry is not about six games. It's about whether Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Diasuke Matsuzaka are anything better than ordinary. That is what the Red Sox season comes down to in a nutshell. Daniel Bard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Terry Francona and his quirky batting orders. . . all nothing but noise compared to what becomes of the rotation, especially knowing that three of their five starters have to suddenly reverse the downward trends of their careers in their 30s:
Beckett. He turns 31 next month. He has to prove he can pitch effectively without premium velocity. His fastball has gone from 94 to 93 to 92 in the past three seasons. The great cutter experiment of last year didn't work. (The Red Sox said he was plagued by back issues; a source close to the team said Beckett's shoulder also wasn't right.)
In 2007, Beckett threw a career-high 230 2/3 innings and won 24 games, postseason included. He hasn't been the same since then. From 2008-11 he has pitched to a 4.40 ERA over 81 starts -- the eighth worst ERA of any pitcher who has thrown 500 innings in that span. Yes, worse than Paul Maholm. I know it's the big, bad AL East and tiny Fenway Park and all that, but he has become the Boston version of A.J. Burnett -- only less durable.
Lackey. He is 32. His strikeout rate has dipped five straight years. His ERA, walk rate and WHIP have gone up three straight years. He throws his fastball less and less, becoming a breaking-ball dependent pitcher. If he were a stock, you would sell.
Matsuzaka. He turns 31 in September. Since he won 18 games in 2008, Matsuzaka is 13-13 with a 5.00 ERA over 218 innings -- making him a $10 million doppelganger of Bud Norris (15-14, 4.94 ERA and the identical .777 OPS as Matsuzaka in these three years).
Matsuzaka is the most difficult pitcher to watch in baseball because of his inability or refusal to challenge hitters. Perhaps he knows his stuff is short. His first outing this year was typical Dice-K: 96 pitches to get 15 outs, only 54 strikes, and only two pitches that made a hitter swing and miss.
Those are three pitchers who present $43.28 million worth of questions this year -- and about $152 million still owed them. I did pick Boston to win the World Series this year because I figured at least two of them will bounce back. (The fallback options are Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Alfredo Aceves.) If only one of them bounces back, the Red Sox are in trouble. And if none bounce back, they are staring at the first back-to-back meaningless Septembers in the 10 seasons since John Henry purchased the club.
The Yankees have their own unexpected problem, and no, it's not Derek Jeter. With that offense, New York can win even with the same down year Jeter had last year. The Yankees need a big season from Phil Hughes more than they need one from Jeter, and that's why Hughes' lack of velocity is alarming.
Hughes, who gets the ball Friday in Boston, touched 91 mph in his first start in the first inning, but never quite threw that hard again. He settled mostly into a range of 88-90 mph, three or four ticks down from last year. His command isn't good enough to pitch with that kind of mediocre velocity.
The troubling part for New York is that Hughes didn't show velocity throughout spring training, either. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he tweaked Hughes' throwing program a bit then and may try more intense long-toss sessions between starts now to find that velocity.
"We've been trying to figure it out all spring," said Rothschild, who didn't rule out the possibility that the big innings jump Hughes absorbed last year (46 more than his previous career high) could be at work -- the dreaded Verducci Effect.
Already four of the top seven pitchers I red-flagged before this year due to their 2010 innings jump have had problems: Hughes and Brett Cecil of Toronto have suffered an alarming drop in velocity and Mat Latos of San Diego (strained shoulder) and Alex Sanabia of Florida (elbow soreness) are on the disabled list.
Here's an early season mystery: Why are home teams winning more often?
Through the first 90 games played this year, home teams are 55-35. That's a .611 winning percentage, significantly higher than what homefield advantage should be worth. It's too early to draw any conclusions just yet.
But here's something with a trend line attached to it: Home teams generally have been gaining a bigger edge over the past decade or so. After the 1990s was the worst decade in history for homefield advantage (.535), the 2000s was the best such decade since the 1940s (.542) and now the 2010s are off to an even bigger start (.561).
I suspect it's a rather random development -- part of the cycles of the game -- but conspiracy theorists and the imaginative can have fun explaining this trend of winning percentage by home teams starting in 2001:
Some other observations about homefield advantage:
The homefield advantage last season was the highest in 32 years, which, coupled with expansion in that time, also meant home teams won more games last year than ever before in baseball history.
Home teams won at least 55.6 percent of the time twice in the previous three seasons -- as many times as occurred in the 52 seasons from 1956-2007.
The most profound homefield advantage (since 1901) occurred in 1931, when home teams posted a .583 winning percentage -- part of the best decade for home teams (.553).
Homefield advantage was worth the least in 1917, when it was nearly worthless (.506).
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