Red Sox Return to a Strategy From 10 Years Ago

After a last place finish and disastrous 2012 season, it’s a convenient storyline for the Red Sox to get back to their “roots” that built the annual title contender under Theo Epstein from 2003-2011. That the reality of this narrative isn’t precisely accurate is beside the point. They won. Because they won, the SparkNotes version of how it happened has degenerated into a brief and simplistic summary that using stats and undervalued attributes while also spending money was the “formula”.

Facts get in the way, so the facts are being eliminated in most Red Sox-centric circles.

I’m indifferent to allegiance and twisting truth to fit into what a constituency wants to hear, so here are those facts:

  • A large chunk of the Red Sox 2004 championship team was built by Dan Duquette
  • What Billy Beane had planned to do (according to Michael Lewis, so take it with a bucket of salt) had he followed through on his agreement to take over as the team’s GM after the 2002 season would’ve resulted in a horror movie
  • The Red Sox were somewhat dysfunctional during that whole time with the mad scientist closer-by committee experiment; Epstein eventually resigning and returning to win a power struggle with Larry Lucchino; and other examples of infighting
  • They were lucky with players like Mike Lowell, whom they were forced to take even though they didn’t want him
  • The 2007 club that won their second World Series in four years was the product of tossing money at their problems as a reaction to fan anger following their 2006 stumble
  • There were numerous other unquantifiable occurrences that were equally as important in the building of the brand as their adherence to new age statistics.

Rises of this nature tend to take on lives of their own and the Red Sox, who had turned to the new age techniques in part because their new ownership was intent on running the club as a business and in part because what they’d tried for so many years—keeping up with the Yankees and other clubs by doing the exact same things—had failed repeatedly. They made the switch to cold-blooded calculation out of necessity as much as design. What they were doing wasn’t working; what Beane was doing in Oakland was working, so they consciously mimicked the template and souped it up by hiring Bill James and backing up their newfound convictions with money.

Eventually though, after two championships, it wasn’t enough. There could no longer be the intelligent free agent signings stemming from their own analysis and volition, reactions and outsider perspective be damned; they had to compete with the Yankees and get the biggest names; a season in which the club finished with 95 wins and lost in the ALCS was not good enough anymore. In the World Series win or bust world, the Yankees had been joined by the Red Sox. It’s an almost impossible vacuum in which to function over the long-term. When operating under such self-administered constraints, teams tend to do things they might not otherwise do. The Red Sox were bounced in the 2008 playoffs by the low-budget Rays; the Angels took them out in 3 straight games in the 2009 ALDS; they were riddled by injuries in 2010, but still somehow won 89 games and missed the playoffs; and they spent wildly and absurdly in the winter of 2010-2011 to import more names whose suitability to Boston should have been known beforehand as players to avoid. Unlike acquisitions from the early days for the transformation when Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling could handle the madness surrounding the Red Sox, Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez couldn’t.

Culminating in the overriding expectations and disaffected personalities that behaved as entitled and disinterested brats, the 2011 Red Sox undermined their manager Terry Francona, acted as if they were entitled to a playoff ticket simply due to their payroll and reputation, and collapsed. Trying to patch it together with one more run, the club took the shattered strategy to its logical conclusion by hiring a “name” manager to replace the discarded and exhausted Francona, Bobby Valentine. Epstein climbed the exit hatch to take over as President of the Chicago Cubs and the new GM, Ben Cherington, didn’t want Valentine. Lucchino overruled him, the coaching staff and factions in the front office passive aggressively set Valentine up to fail. Predictably Valentine’s reputation and personality resulted in a mid-season mutiny and exponential selfishness that dwarfed that which doomed Francona.

A 69-93 season, endless ridicule, and a livid fanbase spurred the Red Sox to get back to the drawing board and they’re in the process making a show of returning to what it was that sowed the seeds for their decade long dominance.

Amid all the ESPN headlines of expectancy for the 2013 comeback; with the money freed from the salary dumps of Crawford, Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett; the promises of a return to the past by hiring a link to that past as the new manager John Farrell, the signing of “character” players such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and the pursuit of Mike Napoli, it’s taking the tone of an on-paper back to basics of a strategy that is now behind the times.

When Epstein sought to remake the club in the statistical image, it was new and few clubs understood it, were willing to implement it, or knew what they were doing if they tried. Already in place was a megastar starting pitcher in Pedro Martinez and some young players in the organization such as Kevin Youkilis who would cheaply contribute to what they were putting together.

These factors are no longer the case. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are a good place to start a rotation, but are not on a level with Martinez and there’s little backing them up; the bullpen is weak; the lineup is pockmarked with gaping holes. In 2012, when clubs scour the market for players, everyone has the same numbers and uses them. It’s not 2002. Clubs are taking the initiative by signing their young stars long term; the Red Sox farm system has been gutted by ill-thought out trades for “name” players. Players that had undervalued attributes like on-base percentage are not floating around for a pittance. When the Red Sox made the decision to dump Shea Hillenbrand in favor of a player who had been a journeyman, Bill Mueller, it was reasonable to wonder what they were doing. It was a stroke of genius as Mueller won the batting title, the Silver Slugger, and was a key component to the 2004 championship.

Is Gomes a Mueller? Is he going to develop into something other than what he’s been his whole career? How about other players they’re avidly pursuing like Napoli or Nick Swisher?

Yes, they’re good players and likable personalities who will help the Red Sox be better than what they were in 2011-2012 on and off the field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t eliminate the inherent problems of clinging to a bygone template to sell to the fans and media to put forth the pretense of getting back to fundamentals. The days of a player being different from his perception are over. Substance is required, but the substance is lacking as the Red Sox revert to the past.

Farrell is straight out of central casting as a manager. He’s well-spoken, handsome, big, intimidating, and the remaining players from his time as Francona’s pitching coach like him and lobbied for him. Everyone from the front office is onboard with his hiring and they’re giving him a freedom to hire coaches he wants and a voice in the construction of the roster that was not given to Valentine. That doesn’t alter the fact that no one from the Blue Jays has expressed regret that he’s gone; that the Blue Jays were one of the worst run clubs in baseball during his time and were atrocious in the most rudimentary aspects of the game to the point that had the Red Sox not wanted Farrell back so desperately the Blue Jays were probably going to fire him. Francona, for his faults, was a sound strategic manager who had managerial experience with the Phillies. But like the Francona Phillies, the new team Francona has been hired to manage, the Indians, doesn’t have very much talent and his mere presence isn’t going to change that or the end results on the field. The same thing applies to Farrell on a different scope tied to higher expectations. Farrell’s limited managerial experience and terrible results won’t be glossed over in Boston as they will for Francona is Cleveland because Francona knows what he’s doing and Farrell doesn’t.

The Red Sox of 2004-2010 would have won with Farrell as the manager because they were so talented that there was little for the manager to do other than write the lineup, make the pitching changes, deal with the media, and steer the ship—perfect for a figurehead. It also helped that the competition in the division was mostly limited to the Yankees and, for a couple of years, the Rays. Now, with the Red Sox lack of talent and stiff competition in the division, they can’t toss out their return to glory concept and expect to win because they’re all on the same page with the manager and they have a couple of gritty players added to the clubhouse. They need pitching; they need bats; they need guidance; and they need to be managed.

Napoli, Swisher, Gomes, Ross, and Farrell aren’t going to undo the dilapidation that was an end result of years of patchwork repairs reaching its nadir in 2012. The obvious thing is to blame Valentine and make the claim that the mistakes are now understood and won’t be repeated. It’s easy. It’s also inaccurate. Farrell’s back; James is more involved; everyone’s working toward the same goal. The Red Sox are upfront about operating from the 2002-2003 playbook in 2012-2013. Is that going to vault them from 69-93 to 90-72 or a similar win total that will put them in playoff contention in a bearish American League?

Do you see the problem there? Considering what they’re doing and how they’re marketing it, the Red Sox clearly don’t.

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  1. #1 by Jason Chalifour on November 26, 2012 - 5:48 pm

    There’s been a narrative that the Red Sox won in 2004 & 2007 because they were a team of grinders like Kevin Millar, Mueller, etc. In reality those are complimentary players. They won in 2004 because the had a 1-2 of Pedro & Curt Schilling, a devastating 3-4 of Manny and Ortiz, and a versatile relief ace in Keith Foulke. The Red Sox won’t win again until they can build a championship core. These smaller moves will make them more respectable. Frankly they’re necessary because right now they have so many gaping holes. After the megadeal this was an unwatchable team on par with the Indians and Royals.

    Their only hope is to build a core of Jackie Bradley Jr, Xander Borgarts, Ryan Lavarnway (assuming his defense is passable), Pedroia, Middlebrooks. They’ll also need Lester & Buchholz to pitch like they did in 2009-10 and hope the guys they got from LA can fill out the rotation. Anything else they do between now and then is window dressing.

    • #2 by admin on November 26, 2012 - 7:00 pm

      You pretty much nailed it. I believe the 2004, 2007 narrative is designed to make it easier for fans to “understand” how it was built. But what they get from it instead is a summary where they’d be able to pass a test with a C and not truly know what happened to create it.

      • #3 by NotWally on November 30, 2012 - 4:27 pm

        One problem I see the Red Sox organization staring in the face right now is a dip in their revenue streams, when compared to the increase in revenue streams for most other teams in baseball due to increased TV contract money. Dodgers, Angels, Nationals and Reds have already spent big; Rangers and Astros are about to get the money to spend big; and the Marlins spent big last offseason before shipping most of that money to Toronto. In turn, that adds the Blue Jays to the list of big spenders.

        This increase in TV revenues for other teams doesn’t mean that the Red Sox suddenly won’t have money to spend, but they may no longer be one of the biggest fishes in the pond. This is a club that has overachieved in attendance, and raked in cash by owning their own regional sports network. These revenue streams are tied to one thing, and that’s rabid fan interest. There are two teams that have averaged 30,000+ fans a game since the late 90s: Red Sox and Yankees. That’s it. The Red Sox accomplished this by putting a winning field on the team every year.

        This rabid fan interest has been a blessing, but it might turn out to be a curse because — as you point out — it just hasn’t been good enough in the eyes of Red Sox fans for the team to lose in the ALCS. We want a World Series title, ever season.

        With the Blue Jays/Marlins deal creating a fourth great team in the AL East, the Red Sox now face a conundrum. Do they spend money on free agents now in an attempt to compete, in order to maintain the fan interest that has given them high revenue streams? Or do they risk those revenue streams decreasing while other teams are earning more money to have a couple of bridge seasons, hoping that their top prospects pan out in 2015?

      • #4 by admin on November 30, 2012 - 10:23 pm

        The revenue stream is one issue, but the Red Sox bigger issues stemmed from them overspending on expensive ornaments rather than repeating the successful strategy of how the first championship team was built under Epstein. It’s not about spending money, it’s about spending it intelligently. The fans might’ve been jolted into reality amid the memories of how things used to be when there was constantly a new and ingenious method to break the fans’ collective hearts.
        I don’t believe the Blue Jays trade created a fourth great team because neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox are great anymore; the Orioles never were. That leaves the Rays as a borderline great team and the Blue Jays as very good with the others hovering in the abyss between the past and future.
        If the Red Sox fans don’t come to the park during the tough times after all the thrills they enjoyed over the past decade, then they’re not real fans to begin with and they jumped onto the train in time to celebrate and nothing more.

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