Betts gets the call up to Boston Red Sox
WITH Shane Victorino's rehab assignment having been shut down again, and with the club dragging the American League's third-worst record into Saturday night's meeting with Masahiro Tanaka - meaning it might be foolhardy to make a major investment in this team via trade - a (Red Sox) Nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Mookie Betts.
It was barely a month ago that he was in Manchester, a member of the Portland Sea Dogs and facing the Fisher Cats, but Saturday he was at Yankee Stadium, having finished a 54-game stay at Double-A with a .355 batting average, having hit .322 through his first 23 tilts at Triple-A, and having been summoned to the big leagues to help save a squad that's struggling mightily to score.
It marked the climax of a meteoric rise through the ranks for Betts, who began the year as a second baseman, was moved to center field when the parent club's outfield production proved problematic, and more recently started getting reps in right field because of the uncertainty surrounding Victorino.
Ranked in the 60s and 70s among prospects baseball-wide back in spring training, when he'd never played above A-ball, he's climbed up into consideration as one of the game's elite up-and-comers, and that made Saturday an exciting day not only for him, but for the Red Sox organization. And after three months that have wavered somewhere between mediocre and maddening, an infusion of excitement was much-needed.
But amid the excitement, let's not go overboard with the expectations.
Betts has obviously proven his offensive abilities on the farm. The only level at which he didn't post an on-base percentage of .400 was short-season Single-A. He reached base in 66 consecutive games between this season and last, then he reached base in every game he played at Pawtucket. In six of his last seven games, he reached at least twice.
It's reasonable to think he represents an upgrade for the Sox offense in the outfield, then, though it's equally dangerous to anticipate his arrival in any season-saving sort of way - especially given his age and the rapid nature of his ascent.
At 21 years and 264 days, he's actually six days younger than now-teammate Xander Bogaerts, the infielder who was a higher-regarded prospect but whose recent 6-for-63 skid is evidence of the growing pains he's experienced.
Another teammate, Jackie Bradley Jr., had a similarly steep ascension through the minors, playing 61 games at Portland before initially skipping Pawtucket on his way to Boston. Yet he went into Saturday hitting .203 as a big-leaguer.
Even look at a guy like Mike Trout. Now he might be the best offensive player in the game. But when the Angels elevated him at the end of 2011, he was so bad - hitting .220 with a .281 OBP - in 40 games, he started the next year back in the minors.
There are guys like Bryce Harper, of course, who meet the stage immediately. Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn were MVPs as rookies. Jose Abreu is crushing homers this year for the White Sox. But entering Saturday, Abreu was one of only three rookies among the 62 players who'd been worth at least two wins above replacement this season.
So while Betts' prodigious production may represent an improvement over whoever he replaces in the Red Sox's lineup, he still needs to be allowed to grow - without bearing the weight of a desperate Nation as he does.
COMING into the weekend, there were 16 pitchers in the big leagues who owned an earned run average of 5 or worse after throwing at least 50 innings, including the Sox's own Clay Buchholz (who was the worst, at 6.75) and the Yankees' Vidal Nuno, who Boston faced on Friday night.
When Nuno proceeded to throw 5 2/3 scoreless innings Friday night, it further added to yet another indication of how underwhelming the Sox offense has been this season. They've now played nine games started by one of those with a 5-plus ERA - and they're just 4-5 in those contests.
In fact, Nuno's performance signified the second in which one of those pitchers has kept the Sox from scoring, and the fourth in which he was charged with two earned runs or fewer. Accordingly, it lowered the starters' collective earned run average over those nine appearances to 3.54 - essentially meaning that when facing these not-so-mighty Sox, the league's worst have actually been better than the league average.
JOHN LACKEY returns to the mound for the first time since being yanked from it after 3 2/3 innings Monday night, which not only signified his shortest start of the season, but may not have been entirely unforeseen, considering the way he's pitched against winning teams like the Mariners last time, or the Yankees tonight.
Specifically, Lackey's earned run average against winning opponents is now exactly triple of what it is against losing clubs, spiking to 5.13 against better competition compared to a sterling 1.71 against the dregs, and it's not just his ERA, either.
In nine starts against winning teams, opponents have posted an .804 OPS against Lackey, bolstered by a .296 batting average, and a .333 on-base percentage that's 90 points better than the excellent .243 rate he's allowed the losers. Meanwhile, the slugging percentage of enemy hitters increases by more than 150 percent, from .302 to .471.
Extra-base hits are more numerous (one every 2.3 innings vs. one every 4.7 innings). Baserunners come easier (0.93 WHIP vs. 1.45). His average start is almost five outs shorter (7 2/3 innings vs. 6 innings). His strikeout rates do actually increase - but still at the expense of his strikeout-to-walk ratio (sliding from 4.88 to 4.15).
The difference is marked, and in Lackey's defense, some of this may be attributable to the significant difference in batting average on balls in play (.255 vs. .362), which suggests some degree of bad luck may shoulder some of the blame. But if the Sox are considering extending Lackey instead of sticking with a contract that would require him to pitch for the major-league minimum next season, his performance in games like tonight's - against a plus-.500 team - should be considered closely.
STAT OF THE WEEK: In the two seasons since the second wild-card berth was introduced, the winner of that playoff spot has averaged 91 wins, and the Red Sox entered Saturday night's first-half finale needing to go 55-27 the rest of the way to reach that mark. The best the 2013 champs did over a stretch so long was 52-30 - though Bobby Valentine's 2012 club is the only Sox team since 2001 that at some point did not win at least 50 games over an 82-game stretch.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.