WHO GETS THE BLAME FOR BOSTON'S HISTORICAL SEPTEMBER SWOON?
Hold my hand and take a walk with me, because we’re about to go to a dark place. That dark place is inside the mind of a Red Sox fan after watching the biggest regular season collapse in the history of baseball.
No one who followed the team can say they didn’t see it coming. It was painfully obvious as September wore on that this just wasn’t the same team that looked invincible from May 1- August 1. They scuffled through the month of August, but still entered the game’s final month with a nine game lead on division foe Tampa Bay for the Wild Card.
Frankly, the Wild Card was an afterthought because they were locked in a tight division race with the New York Yankees that seemingly would be the race that came down to the final day of the season.
And then, it happened.
The rock-solid one-two punch of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett ran out of gas. John Lackey continued pitching like John Lackey. Tim Wakefield’s knuckle ball became a batting practice fastball.
Rookie Kyle Weiland had a 9.26 ERA over his three September starts. Eric Bedard was actually the BEST starter on the team; going 1-0 with a 5.25 ERA for his three starts, despite averaging only four innings per start.
Ace Jon Lester went 1-3 for the month with a 5.40 ERA over 31.1 innings pitched. The team went 1-5 during his starts in September with their only win coming in a 14-0 rout of Toronto on September 6th. Josh Beckett went 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA for September and the team went just 1-3 with him on the hill.
With the exception of rubber-armed reliever Alredo Aceves and his sparkling 1.80 ERA over 25 innings pitched, the bullpen was a disaster in the game’s final month as well. Stud setup man Daniel Bard went an astounding 0-4 with three blown saves and an eye-popping 10.64 ERA.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon ended the month with a 3.75 ERA (nearly a full run higher than it was for the season entering the month) and had as many blown saves (two) as he had saves.
Pitching deserted the Sox during their most crucial stretch of the season, but it didn’t end there.
Third basemen and cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis fought off injuries all season, but eventually gave up the fight in September. Youk played in only 10 September games and was a shell of his former self. He went 6-for-36 at the plate (.167 average), failing to homer and drove in a mere two runs. He simply didn’t have anything left to give; so the Sox shut him down for the season’s final two weeks.
Early-midseason sparkplugs Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jed Lowrie hit .162 and .140 respectively for the month, while combining for just 13 runs scored and 17 RBI. Salty’s catching platoon mate, Jason Varitek, came into September hitting a very respectable (for him) .240 on the season, yet managed only two hits in 26 at bats (.077 average) down the stretch.
The $142 million man, Carl Crawford (or as I started calling him down the stretch: “Carl Crawful”) hit .264—an actual improvement over his abysmal .255 season average—in September and managed just one home run and eight RBI. Sadly, his home run and RBI totals mirrored designated hitter David Ortiz’s September production.
The team’s three best hitters—Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellbury—all hit well over .300 in September while hitting 16 home runs, driving in 54 runs and scoring 57 times between them. Your best players are supposed to be at their best when it matters most, and this trio certainly was.
Shortstop Marco Scutaro put together one of the best months of his career, hitting .387 with 21 RBI and 18 runs scored. He also played well defensively and did everything that could have possibly been asked of him. He had one base running mistake in the final game of the season, but his production for the month is what should be remembered rather than his one blunder.
Now that we have most of the statistics out of the way it’s time to get to what really matters—who is to blame for Boston’s September Swoon?
When a team falls flat on its face during the season’s most crucial stretch it’s very difficult to point the finger at just one person (unless that person happens to be LeBron James; in which case nearly everyone’s fingers are aimed at him, and they aren’t necessarily the index finger).
There is plenty of blame to go around, so I’ll start with whom I think deserves partial blame, and work my way up to the elephant (or LeBron James) in the room.
Let me start off by saying that I firmly believe Epstein is the best in the business at what he does and wouldn’t trade him for anyone. That being said, someone has to take the blame for some of the massive contracts that have failed and the ones that look like future failures. For those, the finger has to be pointed towards Epstein.
He’s had outstanding drafts since he took over when the Sox selected players like Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz and even Jed Lowrie. He has made shrewd moves in the trade market, acquiring players like Adrian Gonzalez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The problem has been free agency where Epstein has handed out questionable contracts to the likes of John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carl Crawford and even dating back to Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew.
The free agent market hasn’t been kind to the Red Sox in recent years, and they look like they will be paying for their mistakes for many years to come. Working in the Sox favor, they have a massive payroll and can still succeed despite some of their free-agent mistakes, whereas smaller market teams cannot.
If the Sox are going to rebound next year they need to have a better offseason and hope for better years from…
Carl Crawful and John Lackluster
Boston’s two most high profile, high-priced free agent acquisitions since Manny was being Manny. I’ll start with Lackey.
When the Red Sox signed John Lackey in the winter of 2010 they thought they were getting the guy who had a very respectable 3.81 career ERA to go along with a still respectable 1.30 WHIP. He went 102-72 and pitched over 1,500 innings for the Angels spanning eight seasons. Sadly, that John Lackey was about to turn 30 years old and left the majority of his talent on the West Coast.
During his first season in Boston after signing a five-year $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox, Lackey went 14-11 with a very pedestrian 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. Amazingly, Lackey managed to be even worse in 2011 as he somehow managed to go 12-12 for the season despite being statistically the worst pitcher in Major League Baseball with an astonishingly bad 6.41 ERA and 1.62 WHIP.
I realize that Lackey battled some personal issues this year, but there is no excuse for putting up those types of numbers. It’s simple really: If you can’t clear your head enough to pitch then you shouldn’t be out there.
You can find pitchers who gave up the game after floundering for years in Triple-A who can put up the numbers Lackey did this year. I’ll be willing to bet they would probably even do it for less than $16.5 million per year, too.
Which brings me to Carl Crawford. In the eight years that Crawford was a full-time player in Tampa his career batting average was .299. He also scored 93 runs and stole 50 bases per year.
Theo Epstein realized that he may have overpaid slightly for Crawford when they gave him a seven-year, $142 million contract, but he figured the overpaying would be closer to the back end of the deal and not in the very first year.
Crawford went on to post a career-low .255 batting average while scoring just 65 runs—despite being in a loaded lineup—and stole a career-low 18 bases. Crawford even played a very poor defensive left field—something that was always a strong asset of his game in Tampa.
Boston easily could have called up someone from Triple-A to post numbers identical to, if not better than the ones Crawford put up this season. Better days should be ahead for the speedy left fielder, but it will be tough for Red Sox fans to erase the memories of him weakly grounding out to infielders and misplaying balls in the outfield—especially in Wednesday’s season-finale.
Look, he’s a great manager, and I 100 percent support him coming back next season and hopefully beyond, but this wasn’t his finest hour. He made head-scratching changes to his lineup card seemingly just for the sake of change, and continued giving the ball to the wrong pitcher at the wrong time.
He doesn’t get all of the blame, and doesn’t deserve much of it since he didn’t swing one bat, run one base or throw one pitch, but he can’t escape blame altogether.
Seriously, why was Adrian Gonzalez all of a sudden hitting fifth down the stretch after hitting almost .350 in the three-hole all season? Why was Carl Crawful all of a sudden moved up to second in the order despite struggling to make solid contact all season?
Why did JED LOWRIE bat cleanup in the 161st game of a Wild Card race? And can someone please tell my why Alfredo Aceves wasn’t stretched out as a starter when the Sox were sifting through the wreckage that used to be their starting rotation?
Aceves posted a 10-2 record with a terrific 2.61 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 114 innings this season. He started four games earlier in the season and looked capable. I realize that management and Francona have to work together in decisions like this, but nobody has a better seat than Francona did for these games.
Aceves was as solid of an option to go five or six quality innings as anyone on the roster late in the season and he wasn’t given one opportunity. I will never, for the life of me, understand why.
Still, Francona does a great job of managing the egos on this team and I sincerely hope he comes back for another season. I just wish he had shown a little more fire with the team folding.
Just once I wanted him to run out there and get ejected defending one of his players on a questionable call. Show some passion when your team’s back is against the wall. He just didn’t show it.
It’s because of that and the questionable personnel moves late in the year that I think he deserves some blame, but I also think he deserves to be back in 2012.
Father Time is undefeated, so you know he would never blow a nine-game lead with 27 games to play.
Still, he gets the majority of the blame for the Red Sox collapse. They just aren’t young anymore, and it showed when it mattered most this year. Just look at Tampa Bay—the team the Red Sox eventually lost out to in the playoff race.
The Rays are loaded with young, exuberant players who are hungry. The Red Sox are loaded with talented stars who, for the most part, have already eaten and aren’t hungry anymore.
Boston’s biggest problem this season was that they didn’t have the youthful energy the Rays had that helped propel them to the playoffs. Watching both games simultaneously, you can see that any time the Rays had a big hit or would record a big out their whole team, including their bench, would explode with energy.
When the Red Sox would finally get a big hit or get a big out their reaction seemed to be nothing more than relief. Relief doesn’t win games. Energy wins games.
To further illustrate my point, look at the New York Yankees. The heart and soul of the 2011 Yankees isn’t Jorge Posada. It isn’t Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez or even Derek Jeter. The heart and soul of this Yankees team is their young core of stars—Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.
Anytime I watch a Yankees game, those guys are all having a great time, keeping everybody loose and loving the game they play. It helps that they are all very good players, but it wasn’t until the Yankees started adding young and energetic players to their team that they started winning again.
Then when you flip on a Red Sox game you see the dead-serious stare of a soon-to-be 36-year-old David Ortiz, an all-business Dustin Pedroia and a suddenly scared-for-his-job Terry Francona.
That’s not what you want to see from your leaders. You want to see them loose. You want to see them having fun. Yes, you want to see them locked-in, but you also want to see that they aren’t rattled.
The 2011 Red Sox were rattled. They were clinging to a lead the way you see an NFL team try to run out the clock in the fourth quarter by running the ball and punting. Unfortunately for them, the team they were punting to (the Rays) were able to score on them at will when it mattered most.
Boston fans don’t have to look too far in the past to find the recipe for success, as the 2004 version of themselves basically put a patent on it. That team was absolutely bursting with energy and confidence.
They believed they were going to win because they didn’t know any better. Johnny Damon called them “idiots.” Now he has his own gang of “idiots” and they are going to the post-season seven years later. Damon remembered the recipe, but it seems the Red Sox forgot it. Maybe he wasn’t an idiot after all.
As for this current group of Red Sox—changes need to be made. J.D. Drew is a free agent this year and likely won’t be back with the team in 2012. They have an in-house candidate to replace him as young, ball-of-energy Josh Reddick is poised to take over in right field.
Slick-fielding 21-year-old shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias could be with the team early next year and remain in the hole for a decade. They also have power-arms in the minor leagues knocking on the door, ready to inject some youth into a suddenly old starting rotation.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon’s contract is up and he may have thrown his last pitch in a Boston uniform. If that’s the case then young right-hander Daniel Bard will likely step into the vacated closer role.
Top third base prospect Will Middlebrooks looks ready to for the major leagues and will either be up with Boston sometime next season, or will likely be a major trade-chip that allows the Sox to fill holes elsewhere.
They have youth on their side; they just have to give it time to develop. Plugging in high-priced superstars rather than letting their young kids play isn’t what made them the 2004 world champions; it’s what made them the 2008 New York Yankees.
Since then, the Yankees have learned from their mistakes and are enjoying another trip to the post-season. Hopefully the Red Sox learn from theirs as well and join their hated rivals there next season.
They say the night is darkest just before the dawn. Things are plenty dark in Beantown today, and unfortunately we won’t see baseball light for six long months. Let’s just hope that for the sake of next year’s team that the Sox learn from the mistakes of 2011, so that the lights don’t go out again in September 2012.