It's been an impressive start to the season for the new-look Boston Red Sox, but they've started falter lately, losing eight of their last 10 games (including series against both Minnesota and Toronto). The Red Sox come to the Trop tonight for a crucial three-game set, as the Rays stand just 2.5 games behind their division rivals.
Rays pitching will have their hands full this week, as they face one of baseball's best offenses. Boston currently owns a 110 wRC+, which is third in the league, just a tad over Tampa Bay's 109 wRC+.
Boston's starting pitching—somewhat surprisingly—has exceeded expectations so far this season. The rotation has posted a 3.64 ERA and a FIP of 3.63 (ranks 5th in MLB).
So which Red Sox team will we see these next three days? The one we saw the first month of the season or the one we've seen in the last 10 games?
LHP Matt Moore (6-0, 2.14 ERA) versus RHP John Lackey (1-3, 2.82 ERA), Tuesday 7:10 PM
LHP David Price (1-3, 4.78 ERA) versus LHP Jon Lester (5-0, 2.73 ERA), Wednesday 7:10 PM
RHP Alex Cobb (4-2, 3.09 ERA) versus Clay Buchholz (6-0, 1.69 ERA), Thursday 7:10 PM
Who the Rays will face:
John Lackey's had a solid return to the Red Sox rotation so far this year after missing the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery. Through four starts (missed some time due to a bicep strain), Lackey's posted a 2.82 ERA, 3.53 FIP and a 9.67 K/9.
His arsenal includes a four-seam fastball (36% frequency this year, with an average velocity of 91.53 MPH), a sinker (21%), a slider (30 %) and a curveball (12%).
He also has a changeup, but he's only thrown it five times all season.
Lackey has reintroduced his sinker this year, which could be a sign of some success for him in 2013. After abandoning the pitch during his disastrous 2011 season, he's gone back to it and has thrown it with quality (6.04 inches of vertical movement). It's been effective for him, as he's posted a career-high GB% of 49.2%.
One thing that I'm surprised to see is Lackey's increased K/9 rate. He owns a career 7.09 K/9, but has put up a 9.67 K/9 in 22.1 innings this season. While it's likely just a result of small sample size, I've noticed that he's relied heavily on his slider with two strikes (32% against right-handed batters and 37% against lefties). He's mixed in the curveball as well, which has also helped him collect strikeouts.
Lackey's platoon splits are also something worth mentioning. Left-handed batters have hit for a .335 wOBA against him in his four starts while righties have just a .247 wOBA.
His career numbers pitching in Tropicana Field aren't pretty; 4-4 with a 6.56 ERA.
Jon Lester appears to be on track for a strong comeback season after a disappointing 2012 campaign. Through eight starts, Lester is 5-0 with a 2.73 ERA and a 3.26 FIP.
Lester has used his four-seam fastball more this season (41%, 5% more than last year). Although he still throws a healthy dose of cutters (28%), along with 8% sinkers, 14% curveballs and 10% changeups.
The way to approach Lester is by being aggressive on the first pitch. He's thrown fastballs for the first pitch over 60% of the time this season. Hitters own a .324 average against Lester's first pitch in his career.
The 29-year-old southpaw is 10-8 with a 4.14 ERA in his career against the Rays, and 4-1 with a 3.51 ERA at Tropicana Field.
Clay Buchholz has also bounced back nicely early on this year after a poor 2012. It's only mid-May, but Buchholz is looking like a Cy Young candidate thus far. He's 6-0 with a 1.69 ERA/2.26 FIP and a 9.20 K/9 over eight starts.
Buchholz does well mixing up the five pitches in his arsenal. He's thrown 29% four-seamers (93 MPH), 22% cutters, 20% sinkers, 15% curveballs and 14% sinkers. He uses the curve as his strikeout pitch, which opposing batters have a tough time hitting with two strikes.
Tampa Bay haven't had much success against Buchholz in the past. He's 6-5 with a 2.53 ERA and a .206 opponents' average versus the Rays. He's just as good at the Trop with a career 2.49 ERA.
The Position Players:
Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C), Mike Napoli (1B), Dustin Pedroia (2B), Stephen Drew (SS), Will Middlebrooks (3B), Daniel Nava (LF), Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Shane Victorino (RF), David Ortiz (DH).
Bench: Ryan Lavarnway (C), Mike Carp (1B/OF), Pedro Ciriaco (INF), Jonny Gomes (OF).
RHP Junichi Tazawa (CL), RHP Koji Uehara (SU), LHP Andrew Miller (SU), LHP Craig Breslow (MID), RHP Alex Wilson (MID), RHP Jose De La Torre (MID), RHP Clayton Mortensen (LR).
As I said before, Boston's bullpen isn't a very good one, and injuries have been a big reason why.
The Red Sox do, however, have a decent back end of the 'pen with Japanese right-handers Junichi Tazawa (now the closer) and Koji Uehara. Tazawa (3.31 ERA) is 9-for-11 in hold/save situations (0-2 in SVOpp) and Uehara (2.45 ERA) is 8-for-9 in hold/save situations.
The Red Sox bullpen doesn't have a lefty specialist, although they do have two lefties in Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow.
C David Ross (concussion), 7-day DL; RHP Andrew Bailey (biceps inflammation), 15-day DL (may return by the end of the month); RHP (closer) Joel Hanrahan (flexor tendon), 60-day DL (out for season); LHP Franklin Morales (pectoral strain), 15-day DL; Shane Victorino, day-to-day (after crashing into wall Sunday).
The Rays' offense is red hot, but the Red Sox look to have a more dangerous lineup putting up great numbers so far. Boston is first in the MLB in wOBA (.341) and third in wRC+ (110). They're also a team that runs the bases very well, as they're third in the league stolen bases (28) and second in BsR (4.5).
David Ortiz has yet to fall back down to earth, getting off to a scorching-hot start (.409 wOBA) after missing the first few weeks of the season. Dustin Pedroia and the newly-acquired Mike Napoli are also producing very well (both hitting for a .367 wOBA).
The Red Sox have also enjoyed three pleasant surprises in Daniel Nava (.378 wOBA), Mike Carp (.481 wOBA in 40 PAs) and David Ross (.358 wOBA in 50 PAs).
Two duller points of this lineup so far have been Jacoby Ellsbury (.298 wOBA) and the struggling Will Middlebrooks (.276 wOBA). Ellsbury, who has yet to get it going with the bat, has still stolen an AL-leading 12 bases, though.
The Red Sox are also one of the better fielding teams in baseball. They rank fifth in the MLB in UZR (9.4), which beats the Rays' UZR by 0.8.
Boston's defense is highlighted by an excellent double-play combo in Stephen Drew and Dustin Pedroia. Drew (4.2 UZR) is one of the top defensive shortstops in the league while Pedroia, of course, is a Gold Glove caliber second baseman.
At first base, Mike Napoli (3.2 UZR) has well exceeded fielding expectations so far.
The Red Sox have a solid outfield as well. Former centerfielder (now right fielder) Shane Victorino leads all Major League outfielders in UZR (8.8) and RngR (6.7). In centerfield, Jacoby Ellsbury continues to shine with his fantastic range.
GM Ben Cherington did a real nice job of bolstering his team's defense during the offseason.