There is a place for chemistry in baseball and I’m not talking about PEDs. The Red Sox have been lauded for their improved clubhouse atmosphere coinciding with more likable people in the room such as Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and manager John Farrell. It’s undoubtedly a more pleasant place without the rampant dysfunction and selfishness that culminated in a 69-93 last place disaster in 2012.
To put the team in context, however, they scarcely could’ve been worse in terms of cohesiveness and being on the same page than they were in 2012. The preponderance of the blame is placed on the desk of former manager Bobby Valentine because he’s a convenient scapegoat and is gone. But there’s more than enough responsibility to go around from owner John Henry with his increasing detachment from the Red Sox day-to-day affairs to focus on building the Fenway sports brand, much to the chagrin of the Liverpool football club’s faithful; CEO Larry Lucchino who spearheaded the Valentine hiring over the objections of the baseball people; and GM Ben Cherington who made the ill-fated decision to trade Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey among other questionable moves and whose head is now in the noose with the expensive signings of Victorino, Ryan Dempster and the trade for Joel Hanrahan along with the highly dubious decision to trade for Farrell to manage the team, ostensibly because they knew him and he was there when the team was at the height of its powers.
Amid all the chemistry talk and references—specifically from former manager Terry Francona in his book—that the 2011 club didn’t care about one another, all they needed to do was win one more game over the month of September that year and they still would’ve made the playoffs. You can’t blame a bad mix of players for the horrific final month of the season when they were widely regarded as the best team in baseball from May through August. They had two terrible months and they both happened to be in the first and last months of the season. If the players disliking one another wasn’t a problem in the summer, how did it turn into the biggest issue that led to their downfall?
Chemistry is not to be disregarded, but the media constantly harping on the dynamic of the personalities strikes as hunting for a narrative. If they play well, the new players and better communication will be seen as the “why” whether it’s accurate or not. Because the media no longer has to deal with Josh Beckett and his Neanderthal-like grunting and glaring; Adrian Gonzalez with his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to all things Boston; Carl Crawford and his “get me outta here” body language; and Valentine with his Valentineisms, their life is much easier and they don’t have to dread going to work. But so what? This isn’t about the media and the fans having players with a high wattage smile and charm; it’s not about having a manager who looks like he should be a manager, therefore is a manager even though his in-game strategies are widely regarded as terrible. It’s about performing and last night was an ominous sign for the third closer they’ve tried, Hanrahan, since Jonathan Papelbon was allowed to leave without so much as a whimper of protest and an unmistakable air of good riddance.
Closers blow games. It happens. Truth be told, the pitch that was called ball four on Nate McLouth could very easily (and probably should’ve) been called a strike, but big game closers have to overcome that and last night Hanrahan responded to not getting the call by throwing a wild pitch to let the Orioles tie the game, and then served up a meatball to Manny Machado to torch the thing completely.
Hanrahan is better than Bailey and Alfredo Aceves, but he’s never been in a situation like that of Boston where he’s expected to be a linchpin to the club’s success. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season. This isn’t a rebuilding Nationals team or the Pirates. There’s a lot of pressure on him. The starting rotation is woefully short and the aforementioned personnel and management issues haven’t gone away simply because of their attempts to weed out the problem people who are perceived to have led to the crumbling of the infrastructure. They may have been patched the personality gap to the satisfaction of the media at large, but the players also have to be able to play and play in Boston. Whether they can or not has yet to be determined in spite of the feeling of sunshine permeating the reconfigured room.
Chemistry only goes as far. If they don’t find some starting pitching and have a closer that can finish a game, this discussion on how much more positive the Red Sox are will be all they have to talk about in July because they certainly won’t be discussing preparations for a playoff run.