Best Red Sox (Regular) Season Ever?

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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.

Valentine at the Break

In his eight year tenure with the Boston Red Sox, the clubs that Terry Francona managed averaged a .592 winning percentage over the first half. They won almost 60% of the games they played in, in other words. His worst record at the All Star break, oddly enough, came in 2004, when the club went 48-38 en route to a .558 winning percentage.

His replacement this year, Bobby Valentine, would presumably have jumped at the chance to trade for Francona’s worst year, because his club enters the break at .500, with the same record as third place Oakland: 43-43.

Injuries, of course, have played a major role in the club’s malaise. Just as they did last year, the year before and the year before that, when Francona’s winning percentages at the break were .614, .580 and .611.

For his performance en route to the .500 record, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo handed out an “Honorable Mention” to Valentine this morning for his “Best Manager” half season award.

This might seem inexplicable in light of the record, the “toxic clubhouse,” the “widespread disdain” the players have the for manager or all of the above – until you remember that Valentine was Cafardo’s first choice as manager. In October, Cafardo said of Valentine:

He’s exactly what this organization needs. If you want a man who is considered one of the best in-game managers and who has control of his team and the clubhouse, there is no one better available.

In that light, today’s recognition of Valentine can be seen for what it is: a simple inability to admit a mistake.

It's Not That Early Anymore

twilight at fenway

Cast your mind back to 2008. The Rays were really good, ending up in the World Series. We played pretty well ourselves, winning 95 games and taking the kids from Florida to seven games in spite of starting an obviously damaged Beckett in the postseason. The Yankees, meanwhile stumbled out of the gate and could never quite recover. They won 89 games in a transitional year, missing the playoffs. The Yankee’s record after 25 games? 12-13. Games back? 4.

Where are we on this not so fine Monday, heading into a stretch where 20 of 23 games will be played against the Angels, Yankees, Rays, Twins, Tigers and Phillies? 11-14, 7 games back. It’s far, far too early to throw in the towel on 2010, as some are already doing. We’ve got 85% of the schedule left to play. But if we don’t turn things around in a major way, pretty much immediately, the history is not on our side.

Give me a reason to hope, guys. Please. I don’t want articles like this one to be the highlight of my day.

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events


(link courtesy of Dan Lamothe over at the Red Sox Monster)

Manny hit his 500th. In a Red Sox uniform. Which given that he was placed on unconditional waivers just a few years back, probably qualifies as mildly surprising. Kudos to Manny for this achievement, it’s a real benchmark.

One that, frankly, makes me appreciate just how absurd it is for A-Rod to have passed the mark last year, while four years younger than M-Ram. And consider that Junior – who is 2 years older than Manny and has missed somewhere around a billion games since leaving Seattle – is sitting just shy of 600. Incredible. All three of them.

Anyway, we also we lost a bunch of games on the road. Like, lots of them. Enough so that we find ourselves, once more, looking up at that Tampa club I specifically warned you people about. But I suppose it’s not your fault. What with your lack of any ability to change anything or do something about Tampa.

Anyway, on to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE:

Bard’s Resurgence

Much has been made in many venues – this one being no exception – of Daniel Bard‘s transformation from a freakishly hard throwing walk machine to potentially useful bullpen piece. ESPN’s Keith Law had this to say about the reliever in a chat this week:

Bard’s been 98-100 with life, and he’s throwing strikes. Great move skipping him past the scene of the crime in Lancaster, too. Haven’t heard anything on Cox, although I know last year his velo was down.

As for the mentioned Cox, that would be Bryce. While he hasn’t quite matched Bard’s numbers – let alone his fastball – Cox has put up an interesting 21 K/3 BB/1.59 ERA line in 22.2 IP. Which he needed to do, because last year was not a good one for him, despite the talk early in ’07 that he was a potential closer candidate down the line.

Clay vs Masterson

With Colon safely holding down Buchholz’ spot in the majors, there’s not much opportunity at the current time for either Buchholz or Masterson to start at the major league level: Matsuzaka DL’d or no. Everyone’s favorite Clay, of course, came off his rehab and remained at Pawtucket, ostensibly to work on his fastball and secondarily – one would assume – to keep his innings down.

Masterson, meanwhile, had his PawSox start bumped up to put him in line for a start in Matsuzaka’s slot in the event that he had to be placed on the DL. Which he was, obviously.

All of which is causing some to question whether or not Buchholz has been passed by Masterson on the depth chart. Some, like the Portland Press Herald’s Kevin Thomas, who said just that:

It will be interesting to see how Justin Masterson does Tuesday at Fenway. If he has a third sold start, does he move ahead of Buchholz on the depth chart?

To which I’d reply, with all due respect to Thomas: that’s insane.

Obviously, I hope that Masterson throws the shit out of the ball in his third appearance. Hell, I’d even take a no hitter. But the fact is that in terms of projection, it’s still no certainty that Masterson’s future role with this club is as a starting pitcher. He has one potentially dominant pitch: a sinking fastball. His changeup was essentially unusable in his second start, and his slider is relatively average by all accounts. One pitch pitchers typically don’t fare all that well multiple times through the order, let alone multiple times through the league.

Buchholz, on the other hand, has two 70 pitches: his curve and his change. If his fastball is even average, he’s a potentially dominant arm. As we saw last year against Baltimore.

So intending no disrespect to Masterson, who seems to be as good a kid as he is a pitcher, let’s not get carried away when projecting these kids. A couple of starts doesn’t alter the expectation that while both kids should end up being very good, useful pitchers, Buchholz could be an ace.

Cap’n Intangibles: Say it Ain’t So

From the non-Red Sox department comes an interesting little tidbit from Dan Graziano of the New Jersey Star Ledger. In a piece (via Buster Olney) discussing Jeter’s statistical improvement defensively this season comes the revelation that the sainted shortstop may have been a wee bit careless with respect to his defensive responsibilities:

According to two Yankees officials, who requested anonymity because they feared they were talking about things that might upset or embarrass Jeter, the Yankees approached their captain last offseason and told him they wanted him to work on his defense — specifically on balls hit up the middle to his left, where he has been particularly weak.

They also asked Jeter if he would please be more attentive to advance scouting reports when positioning himself. This has been a particular peeve of the Yankees’ regarding Jeter in recent years — that he was stubborn about not wanting to move a step or two to his right or left to account for the hitter, the pitcher or the situation. If the scouting report tells them that Batter A hits 80 percent of his ground balls at or to the right of second base, it would make sense for a shortstop with poor range to his left to shade that way to compensate. Jeter, it is said, did not pay much attention to this.

Even in a vacuum, this would not reflect well on the player. But when the player in question refused to put the team first and allow a better defensive shortstop on the roster (that’d be A-Rod) to play the position – well, it’s particularly inexcusable.

But of course, because it’s Cap’n Intangibles, the press found ways in the offseason to praise the shortstop for finding ways to “train better” as he ages.

Ellsbury’s Defense

As everyone is no doubt aware, when both He-Who-Is-Named-After-a-Cereal and my Navajo Brother play the same outfield, the latter is shifted to either one of the corners in deference the former’s veteran status and sparkling defensive play in ’07. But perhaps that shouldn’t be the case.

According to the Great Gammons, the A’s resident genius, our onetime would-be GM, said that Ells is “without doubt the best defensive center fielder in the game today.”

Either way, it’s a good problem to have, because with those two and Drew in right it’s about as good a defensive outfield as you’re likely to see.

Free Trot

From the bittersweet files comes an update on one of my all time favorite Sox, one Christopher Trotman Nixon. As the Times is good enough to tell us, Trot is, at the age of 34, toiling away for AAA Tuscon in the Arizona system.

Tell me something couldn’t be worked out with Arizona. I mean, seriously? The club admits in the article that Arizona doesn’t have room for him. Even if there’s not a spot on the major league roster for him now, and there is not, I have to think he’d prefer to bide his time in Pawtucket over Tuscon.

Free Trot!

Minor League Gameday Audio

From Senor Hartzell comes a wonderful discovery for those of you that are as baseball as insane as I am: the minor league guys have gameday audio available as well. Enjoy, and thanks for the tip, Noel.

Road Struggles

We’re not good on the road. You’re shocked, I know. But some of the numbers are just bizarre. Our OPS at home, for example, is a 113 points higher (.857 to .744). You know what the equivalent delta is for the Rockies, the club with perhaps the most notorious home/away split? 93 (.773 to .680).

The pitching issues are no less mysterious. While we’re actually allowing a lower OPS away from Fenway, our ERA on the road is almost a full run higher (4.40 to 3.50). And, obviously, the winning percentage is a bit different: .808 at home to .406.

If it’s any consolation, according to Buster Olney this is not unique to the Sox, it’s a league wide issue. He quotes Steve Hirdt of Elias as saying the following:

In recent years, baseball’s home-team winning percentage has been very consistent: In each of the past 15 years, it was never lower than .516 and never as high as .550. The past four years were .535, .537, .546 and .542.

But this year, through games of May 29, home teams have a combined .577 winning percentage. The last major-league season in which the home-team winning percentage finished that high was 1931 (when it was .582). Since then, the HTWP has finished as high as .570 only once (.573 in 1978).

Bizarre. And neither the people he spoke with, nor those contacted by Cafardo, can explain it.

Nor can I, obviously. But the one thing I do know is that it needs to change, and fast. Winning 40 percent of 50 percent of our schedule is not going to get us to where we need to go. Not at all.

The Sky is Not Falling

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Fenway Park, originally uploaded by sogrady.

Today sucked, I get that. And yes, I’m just as unhappy as you are. I don’t enjoy residing – as we do after today’s 7-4 debacle – at the bottom of the division any more than you do, I promise. Less, probably.

But remember, people: it’s a marathon. We’re seven games in, and only two games back of the division leading, um, Orioles (seriously, look it up). Five days ago in Oakland we looked liked world beaters; that wasn’t realistic. But neither is it appropriate to write off this year’s club after three pedestrian outings in Toronto.

Particularly since the losses can largely be attributed to one single area of the club: the bullpen. Sure, the offense isn’t exactly lighting it up, after getting manhandled by the likes of Shaun Marcum. But realistically, it’s the bullpen that’s to blame. Or more specifically, the middle relief as Oki and Pap have been themselves.

Whether or not it’s true, as Remy asserted during today’s telecast, that the overexposure of the bullpen is directly attributable to the fact that our starters were one start short in spring training due to the Japan trip is, in my mind, academic. We are where we are, and whatever is to blame, we’ve got games to play. Games that count.

Part of the solution may arrive in the ongoing reconfiguration of the bullpen – Snyder’s already gone, and one of Aardsma/Corey will be exiting when Timlin comes off the DL this week – but honestly, I’m not sure what to expect. The non-setup/closer relief on virtually every club, contenders included, is suspect. They pitch low leverage innings for a reason, after all.

In all likelihood, we’ll be dealing for relief help in addition. Whether that’s a Crisp in the short term or kids in the longer term is unclear at this point. The direction we take will depend, obviously, on the performances of the current major league staff, but also potential contributors from the minors. Speaking of, Masterson allowed> 3 hits (2 infield singles) and no runs to go along with 7K’s and 0BB’s in 4 IP for Portland.

Besides the bad news, there are a great number of positives to take away. Drew looks good swinging the bat, Tek has recovered as expected, and the starters have generally been excellent to solid. Lester and Matsuzaka, as discussed, were both outstanding. Wake pitched very well, Buchholz tossed out an acceptable start, and Beckett – fresh off the DL – threw very well until the last inning when he was betrayed by Delcarmen.

As an aside on Delcarmen, count me among those who’s skeptical of the “relief ace” tag many have been applying to him this past offseason. He throws hard, without question, but his location is often poor and his fastball is pin-straight. I like him in the bullpen mix, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sold on him becoming a Tier 1 setup man.

But back to our pitching in general; you may be unimpressed with our offense, which has managed a relatively pathetic .242/.308/.372 thus far, but our staff – the bullpen implosions aside – has held our opponents to the following .228/.320/.363.

If pitching and defense win games, then, we should be ok. Well, except for the defense, which thanks to Casey, Lugo and even Lowell has been less than stellar. But that’s transient, in my opinion.

But anyway, I’m not telling you not to be upset. I’m not even telling you not to be angry. But I am telling you not to panic. 3-4 is way to early for that. 3-5, maybe, but not 3-4.

Let’s see what the kids can do at home.

John 3:16

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I’ll apologize for the delay in this week’s In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events later. For now, you and I both have something better thing to do: namely, prepare for tomorrow’s season opener against the A’s.

For those of you bitching about the 6:05 AM start time, I hear you, but put a sock in it. I’m in San Francisco, so I’ve got to get up at 3:00 AM. While the Boston Globe declined to provide the TV info – I assume because they figure you’ll be watching on NESN – the Contra Costa times says that it’ll be carried on ESPN2 as well.

Let’s hope my predictions regarding Senor Matsuzaka are correct, because either way he’s getting the ball.

Your Wait is Almost Over

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2007-01-75339-06A, originally uploaded by el swifterino.

Sure, the regulars will get one AB, two tops. And the pitchers will be all be of the minor league variety and will be featured for an inning or a pitch count, whatever comes first.

But tell me you’re not excited by the prospect of baseball, broadcast live, from City of Palms park tomorrow afternoon. According to Kevin Thomas, tomorrow’s 6:05 game between the Good Guys and Northeastern is to be broadcast live on WEEI.

I know I’ll be listening.

Courtesy of Thomas, the Sox lineup looks as follows:

  1. Crisp, cf
  2. Cora, 2b
  3. Drew, rf
  4. Ramirez, dh
  5. Casey, 1b
  6. Carter, lf
  7. Mirabelli, c
  8. Lowrie, ss
  9. Ginter, 3b

The pitchers scheduled to throw are: Justin Masterson, Craig Hansen, Michael Bowden, Craig Breslow, Hunter Jones, and Kyle Jackson.

Let’s play some freaking ball.

Put Your Insomnia to Work

By now, most people are aware of the brutal start times for our season opener – which are, for marketing reasons that I don’t happen to agree with – being held in Japan. The A’s/Sox contests over there will begin at 6:07 AM, which is bad for the Boston folks, but positively brutal for those of us on Mountain Time. 4:07 AM? Seriously?

The Pacific Time folks actually have it easier, as they can just stay out late.

Now comes word that the remaining single game season tickets – you know, the ones left over after I was completely shut out of the last ticket sale – go on sale Saturday morning. For the lucky East Coast dwellers, the start time is 10 AM. But those of us saddled with MT baggage are facing a steep 8:00 AM Saturday wakeup.

Ugly, but possibly a chance to use my insomnia for good, rather than evil.