Not too long ago, David Ortiz looked like he might be cooked.
Boston’s hulking DH had posted huge numbers through the first three and a half months of the 2012 season, hitting .316/.414/.609 with 23 homers and 25 doubles in just 89 games. An Achilles tendon injury shoved him to the disabled list on July 18, though, and it wouldn’t go away. Ortiz spent 38 days on the DL, returned to the lineup on August 24, and then limped back to the DL the very next day. He missed the rest of the season.
Injuries happen all the time in baseball, but in Ortiz’s case, there was great cause for concern. He turned 37 after the 2012 season, and persistent inflammation from the injury forced him back on the DL to start the 2013 campaign. It was a nightmare scenario for the Red Sox. While manager Bobby Valentine shouldered much of the blame for Boston’s plunge to last place in 2012, injuries actually played the biggest role in the team’s failure. Dustin Pedroia missed 21 games and played hurt for a good chunk of the year, while Jacoby Ellsbury appeared in just 74 games and couldn’t hit a lick when he did play. Ortiz was older than both, though, and the linchpin of Boston’s lineup. If he couldn’t make it back, the Sox would be hard-pressed to contend in 2013.
We know what happened next. Ortiz shook off that early DL stint, put up big numbers, and became the defiant avatar for an entire city.
Boston shot from worst to first, and then to its third World Series title in a decade.
That turnaround stemmed in part from the Red Sox’s ability to approach Ortiz’s recovery in a different and innovative way. And that different and innovative approach, in turn, exemplified the many ways in which the Sox have set themselves apart from the competition. The defending champs have more money than almost any other team, and they’re not afraid to use it. But they’re also not relying on money alone.
The Red Sox have begun combining their substantial resources with the obsessive advantage-seeking mind-set of a small-revenue club, and in so doing have set themselves up to vie for championships in 2014 and beyond. They’re simultaneously outspending their rivals and deploying Moneyball-esque methods of squeezing the most value from their players, and this hybrid approach is manifesting itself in four main areas.
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Boston’s approach to treating conditions like Ortiz’s is simple, yet brilliant. For most teams, the process of getting players healthy and keeping them that way has remained the same for a long time. Every club employs a small group of trainers and a strength and conditioning coach, and many also employ an orthopedist. This personnel group is built for broad treatment, because baseball players suffer a wide array of injuries. The Red Sox, however, have come to believe that broad treatment isn’t enough, and that specialization is an essential part of fostering player health.
“We recognize that the management of soft tissue is the critical component to a player’s health,” said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. “As it relates to David [Ortiz], that was an issue of soft-tissue management. His Achilles had not ruptured. There was no broken bone. He was a 36-, 37-year-old who had soft-tissue management issues that were causing a lot of pain and discomfort. It wasn’t a lack of effort on his part to get better. We just had to figure out what would help him do it.”
In the same way that teams employ roving pitching, hitting, fielding, and baserunning coaches to help players focus on certain elements of their game, the Red Sox realized they could find specialists to deal with these soft-tissue concerns. Physical therapists craft regimens to help players avoid the kind of nagging injuries that can linger for far too long; when those injuries do occur, they can help players recover in weeks instead of months, or days instead of weeks. In essence, the Red Sox are using a physical therapist like a roving medical coach. This helped Ortiz last year, and the Sox hope it will help players like the oft-injured Grady Sizemore this year. In fact, if the Red Sox weren’t this confident in their health regimen, they probably wouldn’t have gone after a beleaguered player like Sizemore at all.
While Cherington understandably wouldn’t go into great detail about the team’s physical therapist program, he lit up when talking about the potential benefits. “If we can find people who are at the top of their field to be hands-on with our players and create, I don’t know, a 5 percent difference in how much [the players are] out there or their level of physical fitness when they’re out there, that can translate into greater performance. So, yes, we have spent a lot of time on the medical area in the last two years, and that’s only going to continue.”
Having healthy players is key, but so is knowing when to use them. Like the low-budget A’s and Rays, the Red Sox are tapping into a trend that managerial masters of old like Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver would have loved: platooning.
That term probably oversimplifies modern managers’ commitment to forgoing the ease and comfort of set daily lineups in favor of mixing and matching to put players in the best possible situations to succeed.
For the low-budget, high-success A’s, it’s shown up in several classic lefty-righty time-share arrangements, most notably at first base over the past two seasons. For about a fraction of Mark Teixeira’s salary, the A’s got 37 home runs from the combination of Brandon Moss and Chris Carter in 2012, and 34 more from Moss and Nate Freiman in 2013. In December, Baseball Prospectus writer Andrew Koo discovered another market-inefficiency-smashing technique the A’s employ: a boatload of fly-ball-heavy hitters, including Moss.
The similarly revenue-challenged Rays have ranked among the American League’s elite teams for most of the past six seasons, thanks in part to using even more nuanced platoons than simple lefty-righty splits. Manager Joe Maddon won’t hesitate to start certain players based on the ground ball–to–fly ball tendencies of an opposing pitcher. One of Tampa Bay’s most contrarian moves has been its occasional use of a nearly all-righty lineup against a right-handed pitcher, or a nearly all-lefty lineup against a left-handed pitcher. When the team’s number crunchers realized a few years ago that righty Mike Mussina was killing the Rays’ lefty batters, Maddon trotted out a lineup consisting almost entirely of right-handed hitters instead … and it worked. Maddon has implemented the same strategy against other pitchers, including starting an armada of righties against Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball, and mostly lefties against Ricky Romero and his once-tricky changeup.
The Red Sox couldn’t settle for simply having more money than the A’s and Rays; they needed to find a similar edge, needed to beat those teams at their own game. So they assembled an eventual World Series–winning roster with the kind of 1-to-25 depth that Billy Beane and Andrew Friedman harp on 365 days a year. While flashier signees like Shane Victorino and Koji Uehara garnered most of the attention in Boston last offseason, part-time players like Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp also came on board, giving Boston the kind of top-to-bottom strength on which Oakland and Tampa Bay rely. The Red Sox built a team around healthy superstars, but they also built a team capable of squeezing the most out of a talented but flawed player like Daniel Nava, who hit .322/.411/.484 against right-handed pitchers in 2013, but just .252/.311/.336 against lefties, making him an ideal candidate for a platoon with Gomes.
“Our staff is very data-driven when it comes to preparing for a game,” said Cherington. “You can’t take advantage of that if you don’t have those different kind of tools in your belt to be able to use during the game.”
Boston’s commitment to building a balanced roster and securing contingency plans in case an Ortiz-type injury or another unexpected setback occurs is one of the reasons the Sox project as more likely to succeed than, say, the Yankees. Landing Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran is great, but if the Yankees suffer an injury at just about any position except outfield, they’ll struggle to find a viable replacement.
“It’s harder to do what we’re trying to do when you have a very top-heavy roster, when guys on the bench are just emergency fillers,” Cherington said, explaining why various Carp and Gomes types will appear on the roster again in 2014.
This year, Boston’s edge could be a deeper pitching staff. Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Matt Barnes all have starters’ pedigrees, and if Barnes can shake off a nagging shoulder injury, all three could step in if any member of the rotation falters or gets hurt. They could also augment the relief corps. Or, they could spend the season in the minors, because with control artist Edward Mujica and worm assassin Burke Badenhop in the fold, plus positive reports flowing on hard-throwing lefty Andrew Miller, Boston’s pen looks like it’ll have more reliable options than the big three of Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Craig Breslow provided last October.
Defensive shifts aren’t new either, but they’ve seen a usage spike the past few seasons, and some of the most avid shifters are teams with (relatively) little cash.1
In 2013, the Pirates shifted more than any National League team, allowing an infield of Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Neil Walker, and various first basemen to gobble up more would-be hits than expected. That improved defense allowed Pittsburgh’s pitchers to surrender fewer runs, with Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano emerging as one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Once again not wanting to cede the advantage to low-budget teams looking for an edge, the Red Sox shifted more than nearly every other club last year. They’ve also shown their commitment to teamwide defense in subtler ways. Earlier this week, I explored Boston’s commitment to its young talent. While going with Jackie Bradley Jr. as the Opening Day center fielder represents a commitment to giving a promising prospect a clean shot,2 it also illustrates Boston’s continued emphasis on defense. The Red Sox would surely have enjoyed acquiring Beltran’s bat, and they certainly could have afforded him, but a Beltran-Victorino outfield would have been far less effective than a Bradley-Victorino pairing. And like the Pirates, the Sox now care about that sort of thing.
Aside from trading away slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias last year to reel in veteran starter Jake Peavy, the Red Sox have made just about every move with an eye toward improving run prevention in all possible ways.
Bradley isn’t Boston’s only gifted youngster. Even though the Red Sox have enough money to fill every roster hole with a shiny new free agent, Cherington & Co. are giving the kids a chance this year. Pedroia and Ortiz can stay healthy and the veteran pitching staff can perform, but it won’t matter if the club’s three 25-and-under lineup regulars fail to deliver.
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts’s hitting is what cements him as an elite prospect. At the end of a recent morning workout in Fort Myers, however, the shortstop described3 his obsession with turning more balls in play into outs on defense — “More Web Gems!” he beamed — and parlaying his raw speed and quickness into more stolen bases.
“I have speed, but the problem for me is that first step,” Bogaerts said. “Some people have it, some people don’t, you know. And I just seem to not have it, so it’s something I really have to work on. Because once I get going, I know I have the speed to steal [bases].”
Bradley, who’s earned Mike Cameron comparisons for his diverse and somewhat subtle game, talked up his desire to mash more after looking overmatched in a 37-game cameo last year.
“It’s just reps,” said Bradley. “It’s always repetition. I feel like I’m getting stronger. I put on some weight. So I feel like power can be a part of my game. It’s getting that consistent amount of at-bats. I think [my] hitting is going to be one of the things that’s going to help us this year.” He paused, then smiled, reflecting on his struggles last year in his first brush with the big leagues. “It can’t get any worse!”
Will Middlebrooks isn’t a rookie, but he’s still young and relatively unproven, and Boston appears ready to live or die behind his all-or-nothing approach.4 Last year, Middlebrooks posted one of the highest home run–per-at-bat rates of any AL hitter with as much playing time, swatting 17 homers in 348 at-bats. But he also hit .227 with a .271 on-base percentage while striking out almost five times more often than he walked. Cherington remained optimistic, citing the switch that often flips for hitters as they reach the 700-to-1,000–plate appearance mark; Middlebrooks enters this season with 660.
There’s no guarantee this will all work, of course. If almost everything went wrong for Boston in 2012, then almost everything went right in 2013. The Red Sox can hope physical therapy turns this team into baseball’s version of the Steve Nash–Grant Hill Phoenix Suns, who enjoyed extraordinary team health despite carrying multiple injury-prone players. They can hope the bench keeps producing, the next generation of young power pitchers clicks, and the position prospects fulfill their potential. But it’s no sure thing.
What is a sure thing, however, is that even if Boston fails to repeat this year, the franchise is in good hands. Instead of settling for a stars-and-scrubs roster, this team is putting thought into every little detail that goes into building a winner. The Red Sox are winning with money, and with Moneyball.