Who’s Really to Blame for the Red Sox Apocalypse?

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Baseball is a complicated game, the results of one day, one month, even one season subject to slumps and streaks, injuries and recoveries, players controlling their own destiny and players having their fate decided by a bad hop or a bad call. With the Boston Red Sox on the brink of a lost season, we now have a nuanced explanation for their woes, one that considers all the complexities of a 162-game season and elucidates all that’s gone wrong at Fenway Park in 2012.

The manager stinks.

That’s the message several Red Sox players relayed to management last month, according to Jeff Passan’s story at Yahoo (with the first report of players complaining to ownership being written two weeks earlier by the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman). Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez reportedly were the most vocal players in a meeting with Red Sox owners John Henry and Larry Lucchino, expressing dissatisfaction with manager Bobby Valentine for a series of transgressions, including leaving Jon Lester in to allow 11 runs in a blowout loss to Toronto.

Is Valentine solely to blame for Boston’s woes? Largely to blame? Partially to blame? Let’s take a look.

The Red Sox have fielded a team of Misters Glass.

Last week, SI.com’s Jay Jaffe wrote about Boston’s plague of injuries. As of August 7, the Red Sox had racked up a total of 1,234 player days lost to the disabled list, by far the highest total for any team. Many of these players were high-profile, highly paid players, too, with the Sox losing 40.9 percent of their total payroll to those injuries (the second-place Padres trailed by a wide margin at 30.6 percent). Key position players such as Carl Crawford (89 games), Jacoby Ellsbury (79 games), and Kevin Youkilis (22 games) missed ample time, with David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks still on the shelf today. Don’t even ask about the pitching staff. John Lackey’s been out all year, Daisuke Matsuzaka most of the year. Jon Lester’s seen DL time, and Josh Beckett’s been battling nagging injuries for much of the season, to go with the 16 games he missed on the DL.

Last season’s best players have been far less valuable this year.

Hitters

Pitchers

Source: FanGraphs.com
*Refers to Alfredo Aceves, who took over the closer role for Papelbon this year.

Ellsbury can largely blame injuries for his lack of production, Beckett’s fought through injuries of his own, and Pedroia’s bum thumb wrecked a big chunk of his season. But even accounting for those ailments, Boston’s stars have been huge disappointments. Ellsbury’s power stroke vanished, Gonzalez didn’t hit for three months, and Beckett and Lester have given up oceans of runs. You’re not going to win many pennants when your best players turn into pumpkins.

The Red Sox have been unlucky.

Their record stands at 57-60. But they’ve also scored 35 more runs than they’ve allowed, a run differential that produces an expected win-loss record five games better, at 62-55. They’re 24-29 in games decided by two runs or fewer, 2-6 in extra innings, and 20-13 in games decided by five runs or more.

Other factors can influence a team’s record beyond ability and luck. A killer bullpen can steal a bunch of wins. And yes, a shrewd manager can nab a win or two with effective tactics in high-leverage situations, or lose a couple if he doesn’t. But bad luck, bad timing, or any other term you want to use for “unusual events that don’t typically repeat themselves” can leave the biggest dent. One particularly poignant example: This season, hitters have posted a .720 OPS against Lester with the bases empty, .870 with runners on, .889 with runners in scoring position, and 1.105 with runners in scoring position and two outs. It’s theoretically possible that Lester, an accomplished veteran in his seventh major league season who’s seen multiple postseasons and pitched 5⅔ shutout innings in the only World Series start of his career, has suddenly become terrified of clutch situations and thus unable to get anyone out in a big spot. But it’s highly unlikely. Boston’s 2012 stat line is littered with statistical anomalies such as that one.

Shit happens.

The Red Sox started the season with a roster that closely resembled the 2011 team that won 90 games. They’re not even on pace to crack .500 this year, let alone challenge for the playoffs. The most visible change from last season to this one has been Valentine. Several players are reportedly disenchanted with him. Ergo, Valentine’s the reason they stink. That kind of simple explanation is easier for our brains to process than subtler reasons.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. A year ago on this date, the Red Sox were 73-46, tied for first in the AL East and co-owners of the best record in the American League. They went 17-26 the rest of the way, culminating in the biggest September collapse in baseball history. The Boston Globe pinned the collapse on Terry Francona losing control of the clubhouse, veterans Jason Varitek and David Ortiz failing to provide adequate leadership, and a few players eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse.

That explanation ignored the many baseball reasons that contributed to Boston’s fade, as well as the possibility of a historic bout of bad luck. The schedule got tougher, with the Red Sox suddenly playing teams like New York, Tampa Bay, and Texas a lot more than they did the league’s lesser lights. Youkilis’s injuries cost him the final month-and-a-half of the season, knocking out one of Boston’s best hitters. And the pitching staff got destroyed by injuries: When three-fifths of your rotation consists of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, and Tim Wakefield on his last legs, you’re going to lose a lot of games. While all of that happened to the Red Sox, the Rays simultaneously went on a huge run. They won Game 162 thanks largely to Dan Johnson, a bench jockey who’d been forced to play in Japan and in the minors after no big league team wanted him, finally got a chance with the Rays, and hit a season-turning homer in the bottom of the ninth of Tampa Bay’s last game, after stepping to the plate hitting a shade over .100 for the year.

New York Times political blogger and former baseball analyst Nate Silver calculated the odds of everything happening the way they did last September: 278 million-to-1. As I wrote in a Grantland discussion of last fall’s impossibly unlikely turn of events:

Human beings are suckers for explanations. We can’t just accept that the Red Sox completed the biggest September collapse in baseball history. There has to be one simple, obvious reason why. If we just chalked it up to randomness and said it wouldn’t happen again if the season played out 277,999,999 times, that would be wholly unsatisfying to our human instincts. Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people, right? If so much of life is beyond our control, that would be a terrifying thought.

Every day around the Red Sox is an apocalypse waiting to happen.

Some of this is the media’s creation. A pitcher playing a round of golf is cause for endless scorn. Player versus manager disputes trigger breathless coverage. Decades of management incompetence and bad luck are repurposed into supernatural events. In some ways, it’s hard to blame the Boston media for fixating on these events, or blowing them up into gigantic stories. The news business comes down to eyeballs, and these stories do draw attention. Even writers and commentators with good intentions get stuck in the trap: If your competition wants to spin a story that would be minor news in Kansas City into a huge deal, your choices might come down to follow suit, or get left behind.

The Red Sox brass does more than its share to fan the flames. Over and over, major Red Sox figures have been booted out of town, only to have stories of failure or even alleged impropriety follow them on down the road. It happened to Manny Ramirez. It happened to Francona, with last October’s Globe piece playing up a supposed addiction to pills rather than offering a critique of front-office moves gone wrong, or even a wistful look back at a September full of injuries and misfortune. When an underachieving Red Sox player (or even an appropriately achieving Red Sox player) nears the end of his contract, you can start to speculate on the nature of the next smear campaign.

It’s all about covering your ass.

Why point the finger at the other guy? Because the alternative could be taking the blame yourself, and no one wants that. That’s how Manny gets spun as a pariah (despite putting up monstrous numbers and winning two World Series) and Francona gets spun as a pill-popping enabler (despite putting up monstrous win totals and winning two World Series). If the finger-pointing is as bad this year as Passan made it out to be, then you have to wonder how a team full of underachieving players can have the gall to dodge responsibility for their own struggles.

The incident that led to the players’ meeting with ownership was particularly ambiguous, given the circumstances. In Lester’s 11-run debacle against the Jays, nine of those runs were allowed in the first two innings. Meanwhile, the Red Sox used six pitchers the night before, four pitchers the game before that, and had to travel to Texas to play the next night. Did Valentine act unprofessionally by leaving Lester in the game? Or was he trying to give his relief corps a needed break? Hell, how would Lester’s teammates have reacted if Valentine yanked the lefty in the first inning? Though the idea behind this whole mess is that Valentine has botched player relations and thus caused another disastrous Red Sox season, the players who supposedly complained don’t come off looking all that great either. If the story of Pedroia posing for a picture in front of a sleeping Valentine with the caption, “Our manager contemplating his lineup at 3:30 p.m,” turns out to be true, that’s a pretty blatant case of insubordination, even after accounting for Pedroia’s notoriously sharp sense of humor.

With all of that said …

… Valentine’s at fault here, too. The tussle with Youkilis; zinging Middlebrooks with a, “Nice inning, kid,” after the rookie third baseman botched a play; confusing a right-handed pitcher for a lefty, filling out the wrong lineup as a result … these are real problems, both personal and tactical, for which Valentine should bear some or all of the blame. (There have been other instances where Valentine’s been ripped for bad decision-making; many of those complaints are justified, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a manager who doesn’t make his share of bone-headed mistakes.) There have been plenty of studies that chronicle the importance of a positive work environment and a supportive boss, and the difficulties that can crop up when that work environment turns sour. If the clubhouse tenor is as bad as Passan makes it out to be, that would certainly qualify as a bad work environment.

Chris Jaffe, the author of the excellent book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, wrote a comprehensive piece on Valentine’s track record and tactical tendencies, showing that Bobby V’s been an effective manager for much of his career. In particular, he’s had a lot of success getting the most out of previously mediocre players, with everyone from Benny Agbayani to Turk Wendell to … hell, half of this year’s Red Sox roster outperforming their modest expectations.

What the post mostly brushed over was Valentine’s history of conflict at various stops. In some cases, you could chalk it up to scapegoating, like when he took the rap for Mets failures mostly caused by Steve Phillips’s missteps. But Valentine’s media-friendly persona and blunt management style hasn’t always played well either. And whether their complaints are fully justified or not, several 2012 Red Sox apparently haven’t been impressed by their new skipper’s approach. Of course, plenty of people cited the risks of a Valentine–Red Sox rift last winter, when Boston made the hire. Whether or not Boston’s owners recognized those risks, they still deemed Valentine’s upside high enough to take a chance.

There’s some sentiment going around now that someone’s got to go, that either Valentine gets the ax or some of the team’s leading anti-Valentine agitators get traded or punted. But there’s a third plausible scenario, one that could easily come to fruition for the Red Sox. We didn’t hear a peep about a lack of leadership or fried-chicken-related concerns when the Sox were smashing the rest of the league in May, June, and July of last year. So either all of the season’s problems mysteriously started around Labor Day, or more likely, all the supposedly scandalous events that happened in September amounted to a big, fat, post-hoc excuse for losing a bunch of games.

So the rest of this season, as well as the 2013 season, if Valentine’s still around then, could always go in the opposite direction. Start winning, and everyone might start to get along.

Filed Under: Boston Red Sox

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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