Monday, February 28, 2005

"There can be only five!"

This little nugget of potential strife lurks within an otherwise appropriately laudatory article on Tim Wakefield in today's Globe:

[Wakefield] assumes he will be a starter again this season, though a healthy Wade Miller seemingly would leave manager Terry Francona with a choice of bumping Wakefield or Bronson Arroyo from the rotation. [...] "I know the situation with Wade Miller, too," he said. "I don't see any reason why I should be the guy who goes to the bullpen."

I don't think I was happier for anyone in the champagne-soaked visitors' locker room in St. Louis last October than Tim Wakefield. He'd endured the most for this city and this team; he'd been the direct recipient of Aaron Boone's unkind cut the year before. Perhaps the most horrible sports-related feeling of my life was seeing the venerable knuckler in tears after that game, apologizing for letting the team down when he'd done no such thing. This was a man who deserved better, not just for his performance but for the sincerity of his pain in an era when excuses and ego so often preclude a real sense of responsibility, however admirably misguided.

Having said that, forced to choose between sending Wake or The Paper Airplane to the bullpen, I'd have to send Wake. I'll get to my reasons in a moment, but first let's examine Wakefield's elaboration of his own case for starting, drawn from the same link as above.

I think Bronson's the more likely candidate for [the bullpen]. He's more of a situational type of guy. He can come in and get righties out better than lefties out. I can get both guys out.

Many Red Sox fans would find this plausible on the surface, as Arroyo struggled conspicuously with lefties at times last year, but the numbers over the course of the season don't bear out Wakefield's assertion. Here are the lefty/ righty splits for each pitcher, in OBP/SLG/OPS format.

Wake vs. lefties: .295/.360/.656
Wake vs. righties: .366/.514/.879
Wake for the season: .333/.441/.775

Arroyo vs. lefties: .341/.429/.769
Arroyo vs. righties: .283/.375/.658
Arroyo for the season: .314/.403/.716

We might notice, at first, that Wakefield was really tough on lefties last year. However, Arroyo was just as tough on righties, and his struggles against southpaws seem to have been somewhat exaggerated in the popular imagination. At the very least, Arroyo is no more "situational" than Wakefield is, going by last year's numbers. Wait, though. Wakefield has another reason why Arroyo should be sent to the bullpen, should push come to shove.

At his age [28], he might be a little more resilient than I am right now.

This might actually be true, but I think that Arroyo's age argues for his inclusion in the rotation rather than against it. Last year was Arroyo's first year as a starter and he finished 11th in the league in ERA, 11th in K/9, and 6th in WHIP. He didn't pile up a ton of innings, and he hit a lot of batters. Stack him up against Yankee Auxiliary Rotation Savior Carl Pavano, though, and something interesting emerges. Arroyo had a better strikeout rate than Pavano and a comparable WHIP, in spite of the fact that he pitched in a tougher league and a much tougher home park. Plus, he's a year younger than Pavano. In other words, his age suggests that he could continue to develop, and the rotation is where he can best find the innings to do it.

It should be pointed out that there's no guarantee that Wade Miller will be ready by April, or that David Wells will be able to drag his Crisco-assisted guile to the mound 33 times this year. It's quite possible that the "odd man out" between Wakefield and Arroyo could end up making fifteen to twenty starts as health in the rest of the rotation waxes and wanes.

It should also be pointed out, however, that Wakefield's most valuable work last October came in Game 3 of the ALCS, when he spared his mates some worthless innings in a blowout so that they could contribute indispensable outs in the following two marathons, and in Game 5, when he refused to let three passed balls in an inning amount to a winning run. Both of those appearances were out of the bullpen, and a veteran handled them better than an emerging talent could have. I understand that Wakefield would prefer to start, but his signature virtue throughout his tenure in Boston has been his ability to subordinate his preferences to the needs of his team. Hopefully, if the time comes, he'll respond with as much character and dignity as he always has.

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