1. Boston, Where the Baseballs Are Overly Inflated

The red-faced Red Sox held a players-only meeting in Toronto on Saturday, just a couple of days after the club axed pitching coach Juan Nieves.

Two years ago, Nieves oversaw a pitching staff that produced a 3.79 ERA, the organization’s lowest since 2002, and the Red Sox won themselves a World Series.

Now, in the tried-and-true tradition of baseball clubs everywhere, with a new crew of Red Sox pitchers spitting the bit, they tossed Nieves overboard, because, well, somebody has to pay for this miserable start.

Red Sox starters ranked 29th in the majors at the time of Nieves’ firing with a 5.54 ERA, so maybe don’t forget to send new Boston pitching coach Carl Willis a “Good Luck” card as the Sox recalibrate.

Tom Brady also would have been an excellent choice to replace Nieves, given how much deflating the baseballs could help this staff.

Manager John Farrell told B/R this spring how much he thought folks nationally were underrating Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly. The thinking was that Miley is a 200-innings guy, Porcello and Kelly are still young enough (both are 26) to continue improving, Buchholz would bounce back and Masterson was another year removed from his 2011 shoulder surgery and his velocity would improve.

Instead, all this group has done is remind folks of losing Jon Lester on the free-agent market and not trading (yet) for Cole Hamels or another top-shelf starter.

While the Red Sox’s overall 4.97 ERA ranked 29th in the majors entering this week, it is clear who is to blame here. The starters’ 5.64 ranked 29th in the majors, with only Colorado behind them.

And the beleaguered bullpen had thrown the third-most innings in the majors at 108.1.

“It goes back to the group that pitches the greatest number of innings, the bulk innings,” Farrell said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “And that’s the important and focal point of the pitching staff, and that’s the rotation.”

Starters had failed to get out of the fifth inning in eight of Boston’s 31 games entering the week. Kelly, who has never worked more than 124 innings in a season, has failed to emerge from the fifth inning in four of his six starts.

Willis previously worked as a pitching coach in Cleveland from 2003-09. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were at their peaks; Sabathia won the AL Cy Young Award in ’07, and Lee in ’08. He was also the pitching coach in Seattle from 2010-13. Felix Hernandez led the way then; Willis was named the Mariners pitching coach in August 2010, the year Hernandez won the AL Cy Young.

His relationship with Farrell dates back to the Cleveland days, when Farrell was director of player development for the Indians.

He is good and respected, but not only is this a tough gig in Boston, the timing is rough. There is no spring training for Willis to get to know this group of pitchershe must do it on the fly. Plus, Boston’s catching is a mess with rookie Blake Swihart being force-fed time in the bigs right now after injuries to Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan. So there is no natural quarterback in place to aid Boston’s pitchers.

In the meantime, with each early exit from Kelly, last July’s trade with St. Louis is looking worse and worse. John Lackey has been a rock in the Cardinals rotation, and it is partly because of his tidy 3.20 ERA and 1.17 WHIP that St. Louis has been able to maintain baseball’s best record (22-9, .710) despite losing ace Adam Wainwright for the season.

The two players acquired for Lackey were Kelly (1-2, 6.35 ERA) and Allen Craig, who was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday after hitting .135 with one home run and two RBI.

The descent of Craig, who was thought to have recovered from a rare foot injury last year, has been stunning. After hitting .315/.373/.457 with 13 homers and 97 RBI for St. Louis in ’13—including an MLB-leading .454 batting average with runners in scoring position—he missed most of the postseason with the left foot injury and has not been the same player since.

The Red Sox saw flashes of it this spring; new hitting coach Chili Davis told B/R Craig was his pick to click for 2015. But he’s been awful, and at 30, you wonder if he’s finished. Since joining the Red Sox last August, Craig is hitting just .130 (19-for-146) with 53 strikeouts.

So after getting blown out Saturday in Toronto 7-1, their seventh loss in eight games, the Sox met among themselves. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz reportedly were the featured speakers, two guys who know the way to the World Series but cannot throw a single pitch to dig themselves out of the AL East basement.


2. Look at the Yankees Go, Post-Derek What’s-His-Name

So is this a large enough sample size to acknowledge that it was Derek Jeter who was holding the Yankees back last year?

That’s a joke (mostly), although after getting a load of the 2015 model Michael Pineda, it is clear that the Yankees have something this summer that they sure didn’t last summer.

It was just a week ago in this space that I looked at some of the game’s surprise starts—good and bad—and evaluated which ones are for real. Of course, I wrote that the Yankees’ start will not last because they lack starting pitching, though right now might be the time to refer to the headline of this column and begin to look at the “is it time to re-evaluate” already.

Pineda, obviously, was sensational in striking out 16 Orioles on Sunday and walking none. So far this season, at 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA, he’s fanned 54 hitters and walked only three. Talk about a guy roaring back from a setback in incredibly impressive fashion: With each start, last season’s nightmare of the pine tar incident followed by a 99-day stay on the disabled list with a shoulder strain is rapidly fading.

Over his past four starts, in 28.1 innings pitched, Pineda has fanned 34 and walked just one hitter.

Pineda‘s emergence could not come at a better time for the Yankees. There is a CC Sabathia-sized opening for staff ace right now, and with Masahiro Tanaka back on the disabled list, it’s easy to see why pundits don’t trust this club (hello, me again!).

Yet there are no dominant teams in the AL East this year, and even though these Yankees are far from the nearly perfect Paul O’Neill/Tino Martinez/Jeter/Scott Brosius/David Cone crew, the combination of a diminished division, a lights-out bullpen, the emergence of Pineda (stay tuned) and the deft hand of manager Joe Girardi could combine to produce magic.

As for the retired shortstop, the Yankees’ shortstop numbers are better this year, though not night-and-day better:

Where the Yankees’ shortstop position (with Jeter getting most of the starts) ranked offensively in the AL last year: 15th in slugging percentage (.292), tied for 14th in OPS (.579), 14th in batting average (.233), 14th in runs scored (48) and 14th in on-base percentage (.287).

Where the Yankees’ shortstop position (with Didi Gregorius getting most of the starts) ranks offensively right now: 11th in slugging percentage (.296), 10th in OPS (.588), tied for 11th in batting average (.222), 14th in runs scored (8) and sixth in on-base percentage (.292).

Defensively? Gregorius ranks sixth among AL shortstops with a .965 fielding percentage and a 4.04 range factor. Last year, Jeter ranked sixth in the AL with a .973 fielding percentage and ninth with a 3.08 range factor.


3. Cardinals Nobody’s Lackey

The Cardinals since Adam Wainwright was lost for the season: 10-5. And 7-3 in games within their division.

They are balanced: St. Louis and Toronto are the only teams in the major leagues with six or more players producing at least 15 RBI this season. Take a bow, Matt Carpenter (20), Matt Holliday (17), Kolten Wong (17), Matt Adams (15), Jhonny Peralta (15) and Yadier Molina (15).

They are consistent: Holliday has reached base via a hit or a walk in each of his 29 games this season. That ties Enos Slaughter (1938) for third-longest streak in Cardinals history, behind Albert Pujols (42, 2008) and (of course) Pujols (33, 2005).

They pitch: The Cardinals’ 2.75 ERA leads all of Major League Baseball (and they’re paying John Lackey a major league minimum $500,000, based on an agreement he made when he signed with Boston).

And they have an excellent bullpen: Their 1.61 bullpen ERA leads the NL and ranks second in all of baseball to their Missouri neighbor, the Royals (1.45).


4. Can We Please Get a DH in Philadelphia…for the Second Baseman?

Yeah, forget DHing for the pitcher. Chase Utley is off to a miserable start, and overall, Phillies second basemen are hitting .138 with a .230 on-base percentage and a .233 slugging percentage. In every one of those departments, Phillies second basemen rank worst in baseball.

Utley is hitting .116/.194/.221, which has given Cesar Hernandez and Andres Blanco playing time. Manager Ryne Sandberg benched Utley for a couple of games last week simply to help clear his mind, but Utley was back in the lineup over the weekend and in Monday night’s series opener against Pittsburgh.


5. Reasons Why the NL West Should Be Very Scared of the Dodgers

The Dodgers own the second-best record in the NL and a 4.5-game lead over San Diego in the NL West despite the fact that:

  • Clayton Kershaw, with a 4.26 ERA, hasn’t even found his groove yet.
  • Because of assorted injuries, the Dodgers, through Friday, had made an MLB-high 56 roster moves, as crack sideline reporter Alanna Rizzo reported on the club’s telecast.
  • Zack Greinke has been nails, but after that, Kershaw has been so-so, Hyun-Jin Ryu has yet to pitch, Brandon McCarthy was lost for the season, and yet the Dodgers continue to win despite having started nine different pitchers.
  • Yasiel Puig has been on the disabled list since April 25 and re-aggravated his injured left hamstring on Friday in a minor league rehab game at Class A Rancho Cucamonga.


6. Where Have You Gone, Corey Kluber?

Last year’s AL Cy Young winner now is 0-5 with a 5.04 ERA, and the Indians have lost six of his seven starts.

While that is not unprecedented for a Cy Young winner, it is rare: According to STATS LLC, the only other two Cy Young winners to go winless through their first seven starts the next season were Frank Viola (1989, Twins) and Zack Greinke (2010, Royals).

No Cy Young winner has ever gone eight starts into his next season without winning, so there’s something to watch for when Kluber and the Indians host the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night.


7. Weekly Power Rankings

1. Pink bats: The original Mother’s Day breast cancer awareness plug and still one of the coolest things MLB does. Everyone else—yes, you too NFL—is just an imitation.

2. Bryce Harper: Last man to slam six home runs in three games? Why, Hee-Seop Choi in 2005. Ugh, now that you put it that way…

3. Denver weather: Far more impressive in the record-setting department than Alex Rodriguez passing Willie Mays in career home runs. As epic rains fell, the Rockies on Saturday postponed their third home game in a week and fourth of the season—already tying a franchise record. The Rockies and Dodgers played on Sunday only after they plowed and shoveled more than four inches of snow off the field.

4. Stephen Vogt: Not only is there a question about where the Athletics’ stud catcher will finish in AL MVP voting, but also about when will he umpire again? While on the shelf with a shoulder injury at Class A Port Charlotte in 2009, he volunteered to umpire a game when the plate umpire was hit by a pitch and had to leave. When both managers agreed, Vogt became a fill-in ump. This guy can do it all.

5. Carlos Rodon: White Sox rookie makes first start of his career Saturday and earns the win with six impressive innings, proving that not all of Chicago’s young talent is hoarded on the North Side.


8. Dugout Shenanigans with the Cubs

Giving the silent treatment to a hitter just returning back to the dugout after belting his first home run is one of the game’s oldest traditions. But what the Cubs did to Kris Bryant on Saturday elevated this prank to an art form.

I love it:


9. This Week in Cool

As the Orioles return this week to Camden Yards for the first time since they played the White Sox in an empty Camden Yards…


9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

Digging the new Alabama Shakes record Sound & Color, and this one fits any number of places on the baseball field and in life (and heck, even in Internet chat rooms), don’t you think?

“My life, your life

“Don’t cross them lines

“What you like, what I like

“Why can’t we both be right?

“Attacking, defending

“Until there’s nothing left worth winning

“Your pride and my pride

“Don’t waste my time”

— Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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