Editor’s note: Any statistics in this column are through 100 games and did not include Tuesday’s win over Kansas City.
Less than 48 hours before the 2011 Boston Marathon, normally the happiest (and drunkest) day of the year in Massachusetts, the 2-10 Red Sox limped into Fenway to host the Blue Jays. I specifically remember waking up that morning, staring at the American League standings in horror (2 and 10!!!), taking a big gulp, then researching yearly records on baseball-reference.com. Our past 10 AL wild card teams finished with 95, 95, 95, 94, 95, 95, 98, 95, 99 and 102 wins. Unless Tampa and New York tanked as well, the Sox needed to finish 93-47 just for a wild card. That’s a 100-win pace that, on the morning of April 16, seemed about as likely as Whitey Bulger being caught in Santa Monica.
Keep in mind …
- The Red Sox haven’t won 100 games since the year after World War II ended.
- Only three Red Sox teams had ever started 2-10 or worse: 1925 (finished 47-105), 1927 (51-103), 1996 (85-77). None made the playoffs.
- No baseball team had ever spent more than $40 million on players that needed to be kept away from cadaver-sniffing police dogs and made the playoffs that same year.
- Only three baseball teams ever made the playoffs after starting 2-10: the 1951 Giants, 1974 Pirates and 2001 Athletics (none of whom won the World Series). That means the 2011 Red Sox hadn’t even played 13 games before entering “We’d be making history if we won the title” mode.
- This particular Red Sox roster was already risking a no-win situation with its Yankee-like payroll (north of $163 million), Yankee-like winter splurge (spending $296 million and sacrificing two blue-chip prospects and a first-round pick to acquire Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez) and general resemblance to the Yankees (never a good thing). What’s less gratifying than following a woefully underachieving team with woefully overpaid players? (Cut to the Mets fans nodding wistfully.)
- As if that wasn’t enough pressure, with the Bruins and Celtics poised for prolonged playoff runs and the always-competitive Patriots looming in September, the Red Sox were threatening to become the Fredo of the Boston sports family for the first time since 1985.
Can you have a $163 million black sheep? Apparently so. Throw everything together and it was possible to overreact in April. If the Red Sox didn’t emerge from Marathon Weekend with a little momentum, they were probably cooked. So what happened? Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka threw three straight gems (20 IP, 3 ER, 10 H, 6 BB and 17 K combined) and the Red Sox never looked back, obliterating the memory of that 2-10 debacle by winning an astonishing 60 of their next 87 games. They pulled that off despite getting less than nothing from Mike Cameron, nothing from Dice-K (other than that one start), less than little from John Lackey, little from J.D. Drew and a little more than little from Crawford … five guys who were guaranteed more money in 2011 than the entire Pirates roster.1 They did it despite battling an onslaught of injuries and DL stints (Crawford, Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, etc). They did it despite the Bruins reviving hockey in Boston and becoming the darlings of the Red Sox’s own channel. (Think about that: It’s like Gayle out-rating Oprah on OWN.) They did it with a lot of Tim Wakefield. And I mean a LOT of Tim Wakefield. Like, more Tim Wakefield than you’d ever want at this point.
And you know what? Not only did the 2011 Red Sox survive, right now they’re quietly moving up the list of “Most Fun Red Sox Teams of My Lifetime.” I like watching these guys. This could be the most well-rounded Red Sox team since 1975 in terms of star power, breakout guys, star-crossed guys, whipping boys, washed-up guys, up-and-comers, aging vets, out-of-nowhere guys, offensive explosions and just about everything else you’d want from a 162-game season. There’s been real entertainment value in every sense, good and bad. Can you put a price on that?
Oh, wait, you actually can. The price was $163 million. And counting. But through ingenuity, bad luck and sheer recklessness, we ended up with a team that triggers just about every emotion a baseball fan can have. To wit …
The Guy Who Keeps You From Flicking Channels (Adrian Gonzalez)
Let’s ignore the possibility that the Home Run Derby screwed up his swing (he hasn’t homered since July 7) and concentrate on the positives. He’s the best “I can hit any pitch to any part of the field” Red Sox hitter since Wade Boggs; he’s already in the Lefty-Using-The-Wall Fenway Pantheon with Boggs and Fred Lynn; his nickname lends itself to excited texts after big hits (I’ve sent my dad 25 “GONZO!!!!!!” texts this season); he’s a terrific defensive first baseman (never a make-or-break luxury, but whenever you have a guy who totally knows what he’s doing at first, it’s always more fun than you expect); he makes pitchers sweat through those 8-9-1-2 spots in the order because they want no part of pitching to Gonzo with dudes on base; he’s hitting .346/.407/.559 with 17 homers and 82 RBIs, which means he could finish with Boston’s highest non-Boggs/Nomar batting average since Ted Williams and break Jimmie Foxx’s team RBI record;2 he’s a genuinely lovable/happy/endearing teammate, one of those guys who always seems to be smiling in the dugout or starting up good-natured conversations at first base with opposing players (he reminds me of a likable Dan LeBatard);3 and his at-bats are so technically sound that you could show them as instructional videos to young hitters (he reminds me of Kevin McHale in the low-post in that way).
You can’t call it one of the best Red Sox trades ever because we don’t know if Anthony Rizzo or Casey Kelly will go Hanley Ramirez on us some day. But at the very least, the Red Sox won Year 1 of that deal — convincingly — and ended up with someone significantly more compelling than Mark Teixeira (a.k.a. The Guy Who Got Away). Remember, ever since Manny bolted for Los Angeles (and female hormones) in 2008, the Red Sox didn’t have a single hitter who made you say, “I’m not flipping the channel until he comes up” or “I’m not getting a beer because he’s coming up next inning.” You’re right, you’re right … most baseball teams don’t have someone like that. But when you’re shelling out more money than just about anyone and charging more for tickets than just about anyone, you can’t trot out a lineup for three straight years that doesn’t have a single compelling hitter. Gonzo filled that void, and over everything else, that’s why he’s been the team’s MVP through 100 games (despite his July power swoon). That trade makes me want to remove my clothes and roll around happily in the backyard like one of my dogs.
The Slightly Out of Position Guy (Kevin Youkilis)
A mediocre season by his standards (.279/.395/.495, 14 homers so far) could end up being the single best offensive 2011 season by a third baseman thanks to A-Rod’s knee surgery and Beltre’s recent hammy pull. Does that make up for his below-average defense at third?4 Actually, yeah. We went a little too far with that whole “Defense is the new Moneyball!” rhetoric; just look at the Mariners for God’s sake. Give me an elite hitter who’s a subpar fielder over an elite fielder who’s a subpar hitter any day. Besides, I enjoy the ongoing drama of Youk playing third. He’s not a butcher on Mark Reynolds’ level5 by any means, but because of his beefy build and general creakiness — no Red Sox player seemingly juggles more nagging injuries than Youk — every time he throws the leather around at third, it always feels like a running back completing a halfback option pass or something. And yes, I know he played third in the minors (about 25 pounds and 300 minor injuries ago); it just makes me a little nervous when my third baseman looks like he was signed out of a beer softball league.
The Totally & Irrevocably Washed-Up Guy (Mike Cameron)
Mercifully released last month as his OPS threatened to dip under .500 (the Bendova Line?). I enjoyed this horrific signing because — combined with the Lackey signing and the memories of some other brutal moves (Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, Dice-K, etc.) — it allowed Sox fans to complain about Theo Epstein, a guy who only brought us two World Series titles. Red Sox fans would complain about a blow job.
The Aces (Josh Beckett & Jon Lester)
Combined, they’re on pace for 65 starts, 400-plus innings, 350-plus K’s, 35 wins, a 2.60 ERA and a 1.1 WHIP. Why lump them together when Beckett seems to be having a better year? Hold on, I’m about to dork it up on you. Advanced metrics warns us that Beckett overachieved and could regress these last two months; his BABIP is crazy-low (.220) and his FIP (3.09) is a run higher than his ERA (2.07), which is a fancy way of saying that hitters have been unlucky against him. Being a full-fledged fantasy nerd, I totally believe in those BABIP (“batting average on balls in play,” which is usually around .300) and FIP (“expected fielding independent of pitching”) metrics. For instance, I have Josh Tomlin and Zach Britton on my League of Dorks team, both of whom were doing “well” after six weeks…only their FIPs were flashing neon “WARNING! WARNING! THESE GUYS ARE ABOUT TO REGRESS!!!!!!!” signs. Which both did. Pretty abruptly, actually. I know old-school fans live in fear of fancy stats, but there’s a reason we have them.
Regardless, please don’t let these numbers overshadow Beckett’s comeback season: Here’s a guy who signed a four-year, $68 million contract extension in April of 2010 and immediately turned into Dennis Eckersley circa 1982. That was the elephant in the Red Sox Room heading into this season; if they whiffed on both the Lackey and Beckett contracts, how could they recover? Beckett has pitched like a true ace in 2011, which brings me to my biggest complaint about advanced metrics: They don’t measure the impact of specific starts, such as Beckett’s April 10 gem against the Yankees (8 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 10 K) when the Sox were reeling, or the other two Yankee starts (both wins, which was huge because last season it felt like the Yanks just had his number), or his one-hit complete game shutout in Tampa on June 15 (coming off a 4-0 loss to start the series the night before).
Even if Beckett doesn’t regress, he won’t win the Cy Young with the way Verlander, Weaver and Sabathia have been pitching. But at least he’s in the conversation, and it’s been fun watching him snarling on the mound and firing BB’s again. That’s all that matters.
The X-Factor (Clay Buchholz)
Can we count on him? The jury is still out because (a) he still looks like he’s 12 years old; (b) even as last season was happening (17 wins, 2.33 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), those damned saber stats (.261 BABIP, 3.61 FIP) and a curiously low strikeout rate (6.22 per 9 innings) were flashing the neon “WARNING! WARNING!” sign; (c) before he went on the DL, Buchholz had yielded more homers in 82.2 innings (10) then he did in 173.2 innings last season (9); and (d), if you Google “Clay Buchholz” the first suggestion on the autofill is “Clay Buchholz wife,” which reminds us that Clay Buchholz married to a former Deal or No Deal model named Lindsay
Buchine Clubine, which means that there’s always a chance Buchholz could struggle down the stretch and instead of thinking to himself, “How can I get better?” he might think, “Who cares? I’m gonna go home and have sex with my hot wife.”
But if Buchholz comes off the DL and pitches like he did last season — a totally reasonable “if” — that’s suddenly a monster top three in October. The Yankees certainly aren’t topping it with Sabathia/Burnett/Stem Cell Cheater, which is why they’re sniffing around for the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Hiroki Kuroda and (gulp) Felix Hernandez.6 The Rangers aren’t topping it with Ogando/Wilson/Harrison, although their odds improve if you go four-deep and throw Lackey and Colby Lewis into the mix. None of the AL Central teams can touch Lester/Beckett/Buchholz unless Detroit figures out how to start Verlander six times in a seven-game playoff series.
Over in the National League, the Giants (Lincecum/Bumgardner/Cain) and Phillies (Halladay/Lee/Hamels) could obviously match them. And then some. But neither team produces runs like Boston does, which is what makes the Red Sox so intriguing: They’re leading the majors in runs (541), on-base (.354), slugging (.454), OPS (.807) and WAR (27.6); only the Rangers (526 runs, .334/.451/.785, 25.6 WAR) really approach them. It’s the best Boston offense since the star-crossed 2003 team (932 runs, .360/.491/.851 splits in the height of the Steroid Era); its most dominant offense since the much-beloved 1950 team (which led both leagues with 1,027 runs, .302 BA, .385 OBP, .464 SLP and 41.1 WAR); and the best blend of speed and power in franchise history. Adding Lester/Beckett/Buchholz and Bard/Papelbon for the eighth/ninth innings, on paper, the 2011 Red Sox look pretty damned good … but Buchholz could easily submarine everything. And you wonder why I added him to my “Google Update” a few weeks ago.
The Reclamation Project (Andrew Miller)
Theo has a fetish for former blue-chippers who desperately need a change of scenery, so it wasn’t surprising when he signed Miller (once a key piece of Florida’s Miguel Cabrera trade) and hoped the Sox could solve his control issues. Fifty-four baserunners in 31 innings later, um … we’re still hoping. (If there’s anything more terrifying than the thought of Miller being pushed into a spot start in Texas or New York during the stretch run, please, let me know.7 ) Miller is especially tantalizing because of his height (you don’t see too many 6-foot-7 lefties) and his penchant for looking great for a couple of innings (before self-destructing, but still). For the record, I don’t mind these types of gambles: Four out of five times, you end up with Miller, Jeremy Hermida, Casey Kotchman, Wily Mo Pena or whomever. But the fifth time? Well …
The Platoon (Jarrod Saltalamacchia & Jason Varitek)
… You end up with someone like Salty, who stunk up the first six weeks before improbably morphing into … (I mean, I hate to jinx it … but shit, I can’t help it …) a legitimate catcher. He’s thrown out 21 of 56 baserunners this season; since May 18, he’s rocking .280/.385/.505 splits. Remember when catcher was considered THE question mark of the 2011 Red Sox? Well, Jarson Varitamacchia owns the 7th-best OPS in the majors (.748) and has thrown out 31 of 122 baserunners (much better than the past two years: a 65-for-385 catastrophe). Throw in Salty’s age (26) and Tek’s history (two titles) and the Yawkey Way store should be printing “Varitamacchia” T-shirt jerseys with a “3933” number right now.8
The Agitator (Dustin Pedroia)
Just when we were started to worry that the screw in his left foot was a career-altering issue, Pedroia made an Affleck-like comeback starting on June 5: 39 games, .389/.481/675, 9 HR, 35 runs, 31 RBIs, 8 SBs. So, um … yeah. He also gave us the random highlight of the 2011 season: During a Friday night game in Houston, Pedroia disagreed with a strike call from home plate ump Laz Diaz (atrocious all game), bitched to the point of almost getting thrown out, shut his mouth, grounded a single on one of the next pitches, then turned around while running towards first and trash-talked Diaz.
That’s Reason No. 378 why Pedroia is a charter member of the Bill Laimbeer All-Stars: You love him if he’s on your team and L-O-A-T-H-E him if he’s playing for anyone else. (Note: Throw Youkilis and Papelbon in here as well … although they don’t trigger quite the same Lambeerish emotions that Pedroia does.) By the way, he’s second in WAR right now (5.9), ahead of notables like Jose Reyes (5.5), Gonzalez (4.8), Curtis Granderson (4.6) and Adam Dunn (minus 75,878.8). Since 2008, he’s fifth in WAR behind Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Evan Longoria and Matt Holliday. Translation: Bobby Doerr’s family might have to start emotionally preparing to hand over the “Best Red Sox Second Baseman Ever” belt soon.
The Fat Guy (Matt Albers)
It’s one of my favorite Red Sox traditions … the chubby reliever who seemed like he’d only be pitching in blowouts, then improbably turned into a decent situational reliever! Just call him White Guapo. On a personal note, I always enjoy when the Red Sox have a half-decent pitcher who’s in worse shape than I am; it’s fun to say, “God, that guy needs to lose some weight” and ignore the fact that you just sat on the sofa for three straight hours.9
The Walking Dead (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka)
Drew leaves Boston this winter with his incredible $14 million grand slam and a couple of seasons (2008 and 2009) that looked solid from a saber standpoint unless you were actually watching him every day and wondering if his body had blood in it. Dice-K goes down as one of the bigger Boston sports disappointments ever; even when he was pitching “well” in 2007 and 2008, you never felt like he could get past the sixth inning, and everything went so slowly that you could practically see thought bubbles forming over his fielders’ heads like “I wish we could drink out here” and “Part of me just wants to run over and punch him from behind just to see if it would lead SportsCenter.”
Together, they certainly weren’t worth $71.1 million, much less $171.1 million. The worst part about them? They actually made me dislike myself. I always felt bad bitching about Drew because his son had health problems, and because it wasn’t his fault that he lacked the everyday fire of, say, Trot Nixon. And I always felt bad bitching about Dice-K, who barely spoke English, missed the laborious routine of the Japanese league, struggled to deal with Boston and fit in about as well as Mitt Romney at an R. Kelly concert. If there’s a silver lining, maybe Theo learned from the Drew/Dice/Renteria signings that certain personalities can’t work in Boston regardless of what the numbers say; that’s just one of the reasons they pursued Gonzalez so heavily, not just because advanced numbers said he would be a splendid fit for Fenway, but because his personality was such a good fit. A lesson learned, right?
The Whipping Boy (John Lackey)
Crap. I forgot about him.
Nobody imagined Lackey would be THIS awful — for God’s sake, he had an ERA over 8 in June at one point — but Theo did ignore one of the most valuable rules in professional sports, namely, “Never spend big money on a free agent if there’s a good chance the fans from his old team will be giggling in disbelief as soon as they hear about the contract.”10
Lackey received considerable leeway from Boston fans because of his wife’s struggle with breast cancer; after he shoved some guys around in a basebrawl against Baltimore two weeks ago, then tossed a semi-gem the next afternoon (6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 7 K’s), the door opened for a belated “We’re with you Johnny!” renaissance. Then Marco Scutaro botched a couple of plays in the first inning of his next start, followed by Lackey unleashing so many eye rolls, sighs and shoulder sags that another door opened: the door for the first fight in which teammates charged their own pitcher. Is there anything less likable than a pitcher selling out the guys behind him?
That indefensible display pushed his putrid season over the top. In my lifetime as a Red Sox fan, the worst starters were 1980 Mike Torrez (9-16, 5.08 ERA, 207 IP, 331 baserunners, 1.6 WHIP), 1996 Tom Gordon (12-9, 5.59 ERA, 215.2 IP, 354 baserunners, 1.64 WHIP) and 2004 Derek Lowe11 (14-12, 5.42 ERA, 182 IP, 295 baserunners, 1.62 WHIP), along with 1997 Steve Avery (96.2 IP, 176 baserunners, 1.82 WHIP) and 1999 Ramon Martinez (127.2 IP, 6.13 ERA, 210 baserunners, 1.65 WHIP) if you’re using shorter samples. Lackey’s numbers so far: 91.2 IP, 6.28 ERA, 141 baserunners, 1.54 WHIP. He’s in the discussion. And we haven’t even mentioned that Lackey’s contract runs for three more years and $47.5 million after this one, or that he had a higher 2011 salary than Chris Paul, LeBron James, Deron Williams or Dwyane Wade did. No wonder we’re having an NBA lockout. Let’s just move on.12
The Stoppers (Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard)
What could have been an awkward situation (free-agent-to-be Paps closing in front of closer-of-the-future-and-probably-better-right now Bard) has worked out splendidly: they’re both in the top-10 for WAR (relievers-only) and Papelbon hasn’t looked this good in years.13 There’s some “maybe we should re-sign Paps and keep the band together” buzz building, and rightfully so. What if you couldn’t find a setup guy on Bard’s level? Shouldn’t they take care of Papelbon, someone who helped them win the 2007 title and answered every bell these past six years? And hasn’t his Dropkick Murphys-fueled entrances become as part of the Red Sox fabric as anything? I know it’s probably savvier to let Papelbon sign somewhere else, grab the draft picks and move on…but I also know that moments like these resonate beyond wins and losses. (Yes, I’m a sucker.)
The Golden Boy (Josh Reddick)
Warning: I’m one of those irrational Sox fans who fell head over heels for Reddick, loves his swing, loves how he’ll make a Web Gem from time to time, loves how he carries himself, loves his production so far (.366/.412/.634) and can’t understand why we’d ever consider trading for Carlos Beltran when we might have Roy Hobbs Jr. sitting in our laps. He’s also a handsome guy who easily captured the Sports Gal’s 2011 “Who’s THAT?” Award, handed out annually to the Red Sox player who inspires my wife to glance at the television, do a double-take and say, “Who’s THAT?” like she’s ready to pull a Demi Moore on him.
Anyway, I know he might go Phil Plantier on us — believe me, I know — but I’d rather take my chances over renting yet another eight-figure hitter (or even making a minor move for someone like Jeff Francoeur). At what point do we just become what we despise (the Yankees)? Are we already there? Sorry, I actually like having a random came-out-of-nowhere guy on the team who contributes in big moments and makes you say, “Wow, I never saw that coming!” Isn’t that what baseball is all about? Besides, if we’re adding payroll, let’s go here.
The Squeaky Wheel (Jed Lowrie & Marco Scutaro)
The Curse of OC continues:14 Lowrie can’t stay on the field (this time, it’s his shoulder), and Scutaro has a terrible habit of being involved in the single most frustrating play of every game (like his botched suicide squeeze in Monday’s extra-inning loss to Kansas City). As a whole, Red Sox shortstops have been average offensively (.680 OPS) and below-average defensively (-4.7 UZR), which brings me back to my original point … if you’re sacrificing a prospect to make this year’s team better, trade for an available shortstop like … (looking) … like … (frantically looking) … like … (oh, god) … Rafael Furcal or Clint Barmes? Yikes. Looks like we’re either in “keep your fingers crossed and hope Lowrie comes back” or “feed Scutaro gobs of HGH and hope he doesn’t get tested” mode. The Graffanino-ish potential of this entire paragraph makes me nervous.
The Workhorse (Alfredo Aceves)
He’s on pace for 100-plus innings, he’s started four games, he’s thrown at least two innings in his past eight relief appearances … it’s almost like Terry Francona told his bench coach, “I’ll bet you $100 that I can blow out Aceves’ arm by August 1st” and Aceves just keeps coming and coming. Normally when the Red Sox end up with former Yankees, they suck so violently that fans end up comparing them to counterintelligence spies (with Ramiro Mendoza being the best example). Not Aceves. Any time you can rely on your no. 9 pitcher (within reason), that’s a good thing.15 Especially when he carries himself like Danny Trejo.
The Whipping Boys (Bobby Jenks & Dan Wheeler)
Aceves makes 14 times less than them. It happens. You just never know with relievers. Wheeler kicked the season off by giving up a staggering 13 runs in 10 1/3 innings, disappeared to a fiery inferno of hell (actually, it was the DL), then returned and pitched shockingly well for nine solid weeks (22.2 IP, 13 H, 18 K, 5 BB, a 1.99 ERA) … only it’s hard to trust him because, you know, he gave up 13 runs in 10 1/3 innings to start the season. Jenks turned out to be everything White Sox fans predicted: washed-up, overweight, mouthy, washed-up, whiny, and oh yeah, washed-up. His ERA is 6.32, his WHIP is 2.23, and I can’t tell you his FIP because he ate it. But you know what? It’s not officially an entertaining baseball season until you have at least two relievers who make you crap in your pants every time you see them.16
The Warrior (David Ortiz)
If Major League Baseball allowed YouTube clips, someone would have cut a clip of 2011 Big Papi homers with LL Cool J’s song “Mama Said Knock You Out” just for the part when LL screams, “Don’t call it a comeback!” Check these numbers out…
— From April 30, 2008 through season’s end (89 games): .293/.395/.568 splits, 19 HR, 69 RBIs.
— From June 6, 2009 through season’s end (109 games) .266/.359/.554 splits, 27 HR, 79 RBIs.
— From May 5, 2010 through season’s end (101 games): .288/.388/.554 splits, 29 HR, 96 RBIs.
— From 2011 Opening Day through now (100 games): .298/.386/.551 splits, 19 HR, 59 RBIs.
Here’s my question: Why do so many assume Papi is “back on the juice?” He’s looked the same physically for 10 freaking years. He was implicated once — ONCE — for testing positive in some supposedly secret drug test that leaked in 2003, only to this day, nobody knows what he tested positive for (it could have been a then-legal supplement for all we know). He peaked from 2005 through 2007, looked like he was finished in 2008 (nope) and 2009 (nope), and if anything, as he got older, for whatever reason, it took him a month or two to get going. This year, he got going right away. The past three years, he didn’t. Shit happens.
Admittedly, I’m a huge, huge, HUGE homer. I’m dripping with homer. I’m a homersexual. But still … you can’t convince me he’s cheating. The “slow starter” theory makes just as much sense (if not more).17 Regardless, it’s been nice to see Big Papi smiling and pounding the rawhide again. The second-best part of the aforementioned incident when Pedroia trash-talked the home plate umpire in Houston? Ortiz striding to home plate a little bit later, then muttering something to the ump that was undoubtedly something like, “I’m sorry about Pedey, that’s one crazy motherfucker, we can’t even control him,” laughing and diffusing the whole thing. It wasn’t just that he did it, but that I knew he was going to do it. The dude’s been in my life for nine years. Really, that’s the best thing about baseball … the little nuances.
The Old Standby (Tim Wakefield)
And here’s someone who’s been in my life for 17 years (and counting). When he showed up at spring training with the same pot belly that Doc Gooden had in “Celebrity Rehab” a few months later, I thought the Wakefield era was over. Nope. Like always, he got sucked into the season and ended up playing a more relevant role than we initially thought.18 He’s played with every relevant Red Sox player of the past 20 years: Nomar, Mo, Clemens, Canseco, Pedro, Manny, Papi, Pedroia, Papelbon, Lester, Beckett, Ellsbury, Gonzo, El Guapo and White Guapo. He started 420 games for Boston (and counting), won 185 of them (
a team record seven from tying the team’s record) and even closed for a few months on the 1999 playoff team (15 saves!). He distinguished himself as one of the best community service guys in Boston sports history. Even if he routinely stunk in the playoffs (6.75 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 72 innings, not to mention The Homer That Can Never Be Mentioned19 ), no Red Sox fan will ever forget being unable to breathe, move, blink or do anything other than watch in horror as Wake tossed wobbly knucklers to Varitek in the 12th, 13th and 14th innings of Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS (and somehow, escaped with three shutout innings and the “W”). I can’t even remember the Red Sox without Wakefield at this point. Good to see him still kicking.
(Just know that, if 45-year-old Tim Wakefield starts a playoff game this October, then something went horribly, horribly wrong.)20
The Luxury Car (Carl Crawford)
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the first and only total panic move of the Theo/Henry/Lucchino/Werner era!
A quick recap: Last season was tedious enough that they factored everything in — how scalpers were begging fans to buy tickets at half-price down the stretch, how the potential loomed for a legitimate attendance drop, how the Patriots were seemingly headed for a Super Bowl, how the Celtics and Bruins were poised for playoff runs — and said to themselves, “Holy shit! We might turn into Fredo!!! We need to do something!” Trading for Gonzalez was a no-brainer, but spending $142 million on a leadoff hitter who doesn’t like batting leadoff when you already have a leadoff hitter, anyway? Total brainer. And the brain should have said, “Let’s back away. The Gonzo trade will be more than enough to reengage our fans. He’s a sure thing. Let’s see where we are for a couple of months, and let’s see what happens with Ellsbury. You can always trade for corner outfielders in June and July. Let’s take this slow. We can’t panic.”
Nope. They made the plunge. Hey, it’s not my money — if my team feels like overpaying for a Ferrari when it already has seven other cars, then knock yourselves out, fellas. (As long as you don’t cry poverty in July if we need a fourth starter or another setup guy.) I just wish Crawford was playing better. Was he always this flawed, or is he pressing too much? I think I’ve spent at least 500 hours so far wondering about this and debating it with my friends. For this season at least, he resembles Corey Maggette in that, athletically, he has every conceivable tool you’d ever want from a scorer (or in this case, an outfielder), only he can’t harness those tools and seems to lack any real game sense. Some of his at-bats are genuinely, jaw-droppingly terrible; there are times when it seems like he has no concept of a strike zone, how to work a pitcher, anything.21 He’s already broken the record for “Most angry e-mails my buddy Hench has sent about a Red Sox batter in one season” and we haven’t even hit August yet.22 And that’s before we get to the shortsightedness of signing a lightning-fast left fielder to play 81 games per year in cramped Fenway, which is like putting Chris Paul in the triangle offense.
You know what the Crawford signing reminds me of, actually? I live in Los Angeles, a city with ten million pot holes, clogged freeways and thousands of streets that dip after stoplights so that nobody can speed unless it’s late at night. Why any L.A. resident would splurge on a luxury sports car with a low front end escapes me; you can’t drive one for six weeks in L.A. without crushing the bottom of it. So why do wealthy dudes keep buying them? Because they can’t help themselves. Literally, they can’t help themselves. They stroll into a Ferrari or Porsche dealership with their chests puffed out, get their asses kissed by a salesman, think about all the Oooohs and Ahhhs they’ll get when they’re cruising around on an 75-degree day, they’re excited to spend some money … and six weeks later, they’re on the side of 6th street because a pothole just annihilated the front of a car that they never should have purchased in the first place.
Again, there are worse problems than spending $50 million too much on a left fielder you didn’t need … and you can’t deny that he made the 2011 season more riveting, that he seems like a good guy, that he’s trying desperately to fit in, or that the experience of watching Crawford rip a gapper and tear around second base for third resembles nothing in Red Sox history since the glory days of Tommy Harper. I just wish I trusted him in any big at-bat. And you know what really kills me?
The Breakout Star (Jacoby Ellsbury)
Crawford’s gaudy contract could (and probably will) end up costing the Red Sox a homegrown star who bounced back from a traumatic 2010 season — really, you can’t do worse than an injury-plagued season in which your medical staff misdiagnosed your rib injury, then somehow that turned into people thinking you were milking that injury — and evolved into a legitimate MVP candidate. Do you realize Ellsbury is on pace for .321/.378/.516 splits with 25-plus homers, 90-plus RBI and 50-plus steals, a Dr. Moreau-like cross between a killer Tim Raines season and a killer Robbie Alomar season? Or that his once-maligned defense has improved so dramatically that, after 100 games, Ellsbury ranked second in UZR (8.1) for any centerfielder? Or that he ranks third in WAR (5.5) behind Jose Bautista and Pedroia? I can’t remember a Boston athlete coming up bigger in a contract year; every time Ellsbury comes through, it’s hard not to think of Boras sitting in his Orange County compound, stroking a white cat and laughing like Dr. Evil.
And here’s where it gets really tough, because the Red Sox handled Ellsbury’s situation perfectly last winter; unlike the Crawford signing, they didn’t panic. They knew Ellsbury’s trade value (coming off a lousy season, with free agency looming in a year) wasn’t anything close to his actual value, so they kept him. Smartly, as it turned out. So even though they handled Ellsbury’s situation perfectly, they’re probably losing him because they panicked and splurged on another outfielder one year too early. It’s impossible not to think about this every single day as you watch both of them play baseball on the same team. Yet another reason why the 2011 Red Sox have been so fascinating to follow.
Last thought: The 2004 Red Sox won because of their depth and fearlessness, and because Ortiz caught fire at the perfect time. The 2007 Red Sox won because of their pitching, and because of a historically great 1-2 punch (Manny and Papi). If the 2011 Red Sox prevail in October, it will because they’re so top-heavy: They have two elite starters, two elite relievers and a top five that’s basically a sabermetric wet dream. Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz get on base 40 percent of the time, with a potent blend of power and speed, and if Crawford gets going and Varitamacchia keeps hitting, now you’re talking about a modern-day Big Red Machine. You need an identity in October. You just do. This team definitely has one.
(And to think, we worried they wouldn’t survive Marathon Monday.)
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland, the host of the BS Report and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball . Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.