After a prolonged absence, this all that I likely need to say: this has been the most enjoyable Red Sox regular season of my lifetime. The regular season conditional is necessary, of course, because of those four days in October and what came after. But as has been covered to death, coming off the last month of 2011 and every month of 2012, from The Collapse to the Valentine Nightmare, expectations entering 2013 were at an all time low. As the end of the sell out streak, and the continuing lack of bodies in seats, indicates.
But while the Red Sox may feel compelled to give seats away for $1 in their questionable Get Beard promotions, the reality is that every Red Sox fan I know feels the same way I do. Fans have loved this season, and this team. Freed of the burden of expectations – whether they’re budget, performance or otherwise driven – it’s been enough to simply enjoy the games. Even the losses, at times. Observers of the Yankees noted for years that the regular season had become in many ways a joyless pursuit. By signing virtually every big ticket free agent, the club not only implied to its fans that the postseason was its manifest destiny, but that it was the World Series or bust. Which is an impossible expectation for any team, given that if the postseason has taught us anything, it’s that it’s a crapshoot. Any given team on any given day and so on.
By 2011, the Red Sox season was as joyless as the Yankees’, thanks to what Theo Epstein has referred to as “The Monster.”
As it turns out, however, winning when you do not expect to win is sweet indeed. And virtually no on expected the Red Sox to win. Better than three dozen ESPN analysts projected the final season standings. None picked the Red Sox to win the AL East. For my part, as the record shows, my absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox this year was a wild card berth – a chance to play a single winner take all game at the end of the 162 game regular season. Worst case, that we would lose less than 93 games. And while I will probably never be happier to be wrong, I wasn’t the only one to undersell this year’s team. The front office, in fact, had it pegged for an 86 win season – borderline wild card contender, in other words. According to their projections, the probability that the Red Sox would win 90 plus games was roughly 30%. So of course the standings show 94 wins and counting.
How did we get here? Considerable luck, not unlike the Baltimore Orioles of last year – that part, at least, I got right. It’s not every season, after all, that you come from behind 30 times and win 20 games in your last at bat. If we don’t win half of those 20 games, after all, we’d be having a very different conversation today. But the games were won, and thus was the division won.
It wasn’t all luck, however. When Ben Cherington wasn’t trading for more relievers to blow up in his face, he was actually doing pretty well – Amherst grad or no. Rejecting the comically bad ideas from local media to replicate the Carl Crawford debacle after just having escaped from it by signing Josh Hamilton, the second year Red Sox GM instead pursued a strategy similar, again, to those moneyballing A’s. Rather than concentrating your assets – and your risk – in a few star players, Cherington used the money that some would have had us deploy towards Hamilton to instead acquire Dempster, Gomes, Napoli, Victorino and, later, Peavy. Unless you’re a fan of $123M players with four years left on the contract who put up a .245/.301/.431 line, you’re probably going to argue that Cherington did the right thing. And given the standings, the other AL East teams are likely to back you up.
What does all of the above mean as we head into the postseason? Absolutely nothing, of course. In the second season, everybody’s win count is reset to zero and, more importantly, anything can happen. Just as they over-react to failure, many in the media are over-rotating on our divisional success. Which is a mistake, because it’s far from clear that the Red Sox are, in fact, built for postseason success. For all that their depth served them well for the long regular season, it’s equally possible that their lack of star power on offense could be exposed when facing high end pitching in the playoffs. For example: the Red Sox have tied or losing records versus seven teams this year: five are potential playoff opponents (BAL, DET, KCR, OAK, TEX). And even against the teams they beat more often than not, the numbers point to challenges. Of the 19 games against Tampa this year, we won 12 of them. That’s good. The fact that we hit .208/.280/.333 in doing so, on the other hand, is less good.
But there’s time to worry about all of that later, and besides, the playoffs are a crapshoot. Right now, all that we have to do is enjoy the last days of the best regular we’ve seen these many years past. Because it’ll be over before you know it.