By Alexander Remington, Culture Writer, MPP ‘13
In the first issue of the Citizen, on September 20, I wrote something that seemed obvious to me at the time: “The Red Sox will play on into October.” The column was about the movie Moneyball, and I concluded the column by writing:
The book Moneyball was all about the Oakland A’s, the team who figured out how to exploit the market despite being poor. But the subtext of the movie has to be the past decade, which has been all about the Red Sox: the team that figured out how to exploit the Market thanks to being rich. That’s the new Moneyball.
Oops. On Tuesday, September 20, the Sox were 88-67, two and a half games ahead of the Rays. There was little over a week left in the season, and I thought it inconceivable that the Sox could actually lose their lead. In the wake of the historic collapse — the worst in baseball history — the Sox fired manager Terry Francona and lost general manager Theo Epstein, who departed to work for the Chicago Cubs. Many have blamed the so-called “Moneyball” methods that seemed to work for the 2004 and 2007 championship teams, saying that Epstein had dangerously miscalculated. So why was I wrong, and what went wrong with the Sox?
It wasn’t the famously poor chemistry. Shortly after the season ended, the Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler wrote an article that exposed some of the cracks that had been widening in the clubhouse over the course of the year. The enduring image was that of pitchers drinking beer on their days off, while other players felt socially isolated.
But all of that was true during the summer, too: while the Sox went 18-35 in April and September, they went 72-37 from May through August, by far the best record in baseball over that stretch. The bad chemistry may not have helped them win, but it certainly didn’t impede the team from playing well for four and a half months.
Should we blame the big spending, which I praised so highly in my earlier column? I don’t think so. Certainly, three of the team’s biggest disappointments were among the team’s most highly-paid players, John Lackey ($15.75M), Carl Crawford ($14M), not to mention the injured J.D. Drew ($14M). But the team is a mint, and they’re not going to run out of money any time soon. The problem with Lackey was not the price they paid, because he was a sunk cost.
The problem was that they didn’t have enough depth in their minor leagues to fill in, and Epstein was curiously reticent to bolster the team’s pitching depth, balking at a possible late-season acquisition of Bruce Chen. If they had had such depth, they might have been able to move past Lackey’s horrible season earlier. At the end of the season they announced that Lackey would need Tommy John surgery, which would keep him out for the entire 2012 season; some wags have speculated that the injury is mostly one of convenience to the team. If they had enough depth, they might have been able to announce that “injury” sooner. And the minor league depth is still a problem. (Stolmy Pimentel’s hideous 9.12 ERA in Double-A Portland didn’t build confidence for his future with the club.)
The problem was that, of their hitters, Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford missed a month and a half, J.D. Drew was out for half the year; of the pitchers, Clay Buchholz missed half the year, Daisuke Matsuzaka missed more than that, and the 44-year old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was asked to pick up their slack, throwing his most innings in three years. Other sixth starters pressed into service were rookie Kyle Weiland and perennial underachiever Andrew Miller.
Historically, other than Pedro Martinez, pitching is not a typical strength of the Red Sox; they play in one of the best hitters’ parks in the majors. The usual strategy is to win high-scoring slugfests. In September, they got half of the equation right. They hit very well, scoring 5.4 runs a game. But their pitchers and defense allowed 6.4 runs a game.
That was a problem because of a failure of leadership and communication: Terry Francona apparently didn’t report the team’s weaknesses up the chain, and after a few decent trade deadline deals, Theo Epstein stood pat as the team lost miles of ground in September. The poor chemistry exacerbated the noxious atmosphere that losing always creates; it didn’t make them lose. The team lost because of a failure of leadership, descending into guttersniping at the end of the season. That’s why they lost, and that’s why I was wrong.