Our golden boy, Josh Beckett, has suddenly begun to reveal weaknesses (one of which, I’m assuming, is Twinkies). The inexorable Jon Papelbon notched back-to-back blown saves a few weeks back. Sure, we’ve had unexpected brilliance from Dice-K and a bumper crop of
One of the most notable declines of late was on full display last night, as Hideki Okajima entered the game against the (goddamn) Orioles and promptly blew a 6-4 Sox lead by giving up 2 walks, a single, and a double. (Throw in a triple and you have what’s referred to as the Miguel Batista Special.) Last night’s game, in fact, was only the latest in a series of woes for Okajima, as just a week ago he blew ANOTHER game, also against the O’s. Okajima (that’s “Oh-Kah-Jeemer” for those of you from Revere) has clearly been struggling this year, and this is bad news.
It’s been easy, in the past, to underestimate Okajima’s importance to the team -- not because he wasn’t performing well, but because he was performing SO consistently and SO well that you almost forgot he was there. He’s always been the Gamera to Matsuzaka’s flitting, ever-evolving Mothra: emerging stealthily, turtle-like, from the dugout to do battle for a few innings before ceding the stage for the final outs of the game. Head down, necklaces flying, Okajima was such a sure thing last year that it’s become instinctive to expect nothing less than absolute success from him. Like all of the ’07 Sox pitching, he seemed almost charmed, borne along by the unstoppable momentum of a team that had a Date With Destiny.
/puts on stats nerd glasses
As a setup man, Okie’s stats have always belied how crucial his pitching is to the Red Sox. He only appeared in 66 games last year and worked just 69.0 innings; his WHIP was a more-than-competent 0.971 and his ERA was 2.22, but he only notched 5 saves and 3 wins on the year. 63 Ks in 69 innings sound pretty sexy, but for middle relievers, the ability to throw strikeouts tends to be more a reflection of pitching style than pitching dominance (case in point: last year, Eric Gagne struck out 51 batters in 52 innings between Texas and Boston combined, and holy shit that dude sucks so much it makes my face hurt). The stat about last year that should really grab your attention is this: in those 69 innings pitched, Okajima only faced 272 batters. That’s an average of 3.94 batters per inning. Moreover, he did it on just 1062 pitches, or 3.90 pitches per batter. That’s, um, REALLY goddamn good. On any other team, that would be closer material without question. Because we have Papelbon (who averaged 3.84 batters per inning last year), we get to use Okie as our setup bitch. That’s like getting to drive your Porsche while your Ferrari gets a tune-up. That’s freaking ridiculous.
The fact that we have such a money closer in Papelbon doesn’t make Okajima any less valuable; if anything, it makes him MORE valuable in terms of a) letting us preserve Papelbon for save situations and b) giving us an arm we can count on to dominate even in situations where we don’t necessarily need a closer. Now that Okajima’s started to show signs of being human, the significance of having him in our bullpen is becoming more and more clear. It’s not merely a matter of, “oh, sick, we have a bunch of good relief pitchers.” He’s so, so much more than one more cog in an efficient and well-oiled machine. When his game’s on, he belongs to a truly rarified group of dominant relief pitchers.
So Okie blows a game or two. Is the sky falling? Nah, moron, that’s probably just some rain. But you better hold onto your ass and sacrifice a goat to whatever pagan god it is you worship in prayer that Okajima pulls his act together. A dominant Okajima means a dominant Boston team down the stretch. In the majority of the Gamera movies, Gamera fails epically in his first battle only to retreat, heal, and ultimately emerge for glorious victory. One can only hope that these early-season struggles mean that Okie will return to form following the All-Star Break and quietly lead the Sox once more into the postseason.