The 2013 Red Sox: Don’t Call It a Comeback

Jim Rogash/Getty Images John Lackey

The Boston Red Sox own the best record in the American League. Maybe you’re used to this by now. They surged out of the gate, spent most of April and early May atop the AL East, fell back to the pack for a short while, reclaimed the division lead on May 27, and have held that spot since.

Had you predicted this the day after the 2012 season ended, you would have been labeled a witch. Back then, the Sox had just completed a year in which they finished with the third-worst record in the American League. There was infighting, manager scapegoating, and all the misery that comes when a high-expectations team turns in one of the worst seasons in club history and the nation’s most overzealous media buzzards get to pick from the bones. All of this one year after Boston turned in the biggest September collapse of all time, then had all of that blamed on fried chicken, beer, and a manager who we were told gave zero Fs.

So, what changed? Which dramatic, next-to-impossible events unfolded that took the Red Sox from one of the darkest periods in the history of the franchise all the way back to the top of the heap? Turns out, not that many. They did make one monumental trade, of course, one that cleared a huge sum of money off the payroll. That deal aside, the Red Sox used a patient, incremental approach to become a first-place team again. Sometimes the best thing you can do after a disaster is just wait for your luck to turn.

To understand the decisions that Red Sox brass faced over the winter, we need to look back at what happened from September 2011 through the end of the 2012 season. Apologies in advance to Sox fans with queasy stomachs.

We all remember what unfolded in 2011: nine-game lead for the wild card on September 3, 99.6 percent playoff chances, all swept away after losing 18 of their final 24 games. But the popular narrative that emerged from that collapse — that indifferent players and a supposedly out-of-touch manager torpedoed the season with KFC and Bud Light — was always off the mark. Sure, all things being equal, you’d like to see a more professional environment given the high stakes of those September games. But the far bigger problem was the cavalcade of terrible pitchers Boston trotted out in that final month.

Andrew Miller made two September starts, lasting just 6⅓ innings combined, posting a 15.63 ERA and getting relegated to the bullpen thereafter. Fill-in Kyle Weiland made three September starts, didn’t make it through the fifth in any of them, and posted a 9.26 ERA; he tossed 17⅔ innings for Houston the next season and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since. Tim Wakefield started four times during that stretch, delivering a 6.30 ERA; he retired at the end of the year. Hand nine pivotal starts to a trio of punching-bag pitchers either ill-suited for the rotation or about to leave the game, and that’s what you get. Lousy performances by the well-compensated starters who were actually expected to carry the load sealed the deal. John Lackey, the right-hander who had been poached from the Angels with a five-year, $82.5 million megadeal, put up a 9.13 ERA over his last five starts in 2011; his 6.41 ERA for the season was more than a full run higher than any other starter with as many innings.

Terry Francona got fired and Theo Epstein resigned at season’s end, with Francona getting much of the blame for the team’s downfall in mainstream circles. In reality, the Red Sox lost because of a confluence of factors unrelated to the manager: the Rays got hot, Boston’s rotation got crushed by attrition, the Sox didn’t have good contingency plans ready, and frankly, all the bad hops in the world that could’ve worked against them did.

The Sox hired Bobby Valentine to take Francona’s place for the following season. If immaturity and a lack of player focus (possibly) hurt Boston for one month in 2011, the clubhouse atmosphere dominated the headlines all year long in 2012. Everything came to a head in August of last year, when Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that multiple players vented during an anti-Valentine meeting, and that players had planned a mutiny against their skipper.

But obsessing over manager-player relations for the second straight year was another case of sweating the symptom, and not the cause. Even if you grant that Valentine’s strong personality alienated some players, even if you believe those strained relations might have played a role in the 69-93 stinkfest that ensued, not even the world’s biggest alchemy zealot could lay all the misfortune that swamped the Red Sox at Valentine’s feet.

First, there was the plague of injuries. Though Dustin Pedroia played in 141 games, many of those occurred while favoring a badly injured thumb; bothered by that injury, he produced a .290/.347/.449 line that was the worst for any full season of his career. At least he was in the lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury wasn’t for 88 of Boston’s 162 games, his own injuries drowning his numbers and resulting in a .271/.313/.370 campaign, worse than any season in his career other than the 2010 campaign in which he missed 144 games. Kevin Youkilis, the second-best hitter in all of baseball from 2008 to 2010 by at least one measure, broke down so badly that Boston had to ship him out of town for a bucket of beans. David Ortiz posted a 1.026 OPS — but only played 90 games. Carl Crawford, the nine-figure signee expected to supercharge Boston’s defense, baserunning, and top of the lineup, played just 31 games. In place of those starters, the Sox trotted out a parade of players who stunk — Marlon Byrd, Ryan Kalish, and Mauro Gomez made fans pine for the days of Milt Cuyler and Rico Brogna. All told, the Red Sox averaged just 4.5 runs scored per game last year, their lowest mark in nearly 20 years. (You can blame some of that on run-scoring dropping throughout baseball since the PED era tapered off, but that only mitigates part of the decline.)

Second, the starting rotation disappointed. Though rotation mainstays Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Josh Beckett stayed relatively healthy, they also weren’t very good, combining to post a 4.83 ERA. Though their combined defense-independent numbers were closer to the low-4.00s, that would still be cold comfort given these were supposed to be Boston’s top three starters. And that’s leaving aside Lester’s shrinking strikeout rate, or Lester and Beckett grooving fastball after fastball down the heart of the plate all season, thereby triggering the case of FIP vs. Meatballitis. Red Sox starters served up a 5.19 ERA last year, the worst mark in franchise history.

Finally, the closer situation was apocalyptically bad in the early stages of the season, digging a big hole that buried Boston’s season. Pressed into ninth-inning duty by injuries to others, Alfredo Aceves blew eight save chances out of 33, with 10 losses. Mark Melancon put up a 49.50 ERA through his first four appearances before the Sox made him disappear till mid-June (he was better thereafter). Andrew Bailey, who had a history of pitching well but also getting hurt … pitched poorly, and got hurt. Bullpen management is one of the few areas where you can give a fair amount of credit or blame to the manager. But when everyone you put in there fails, at a certain point there’s not much you can do.

Certainly, GM Ben Cherington and the rest of the baseball ops department weren’t going to stand pat completely. In late August, the Red Sox pulled off the biggest trade in baseball history … in terms of dollars, anyway. Boston shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, and $11 million to the desperate-to-contend Dodgers for James Loney, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Jerry Sands, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster, thus jettisoning more than a quarter-billion dollars in contracts. Despite the name recognition involved, this wasn’t a blow-everything-up deal by any means. Beckett had become a shadow of his former self, an injury-prone commodity with plummeting fastball velocity and failing peripherals. Crawford, too, had become a massive injury risk, with additional questions being raised about the value of his defense in front of the shallow Green Monster, and if you were the amateur psychologist type, his ability to handle the emotional rigors of playing in Boston. Only Gonzalez projected as a possible impact player. But a few months removed from having given him a $154 million contract, the Red Sox might have realized that handing $154 million to a first baseman on the wrong side of 30 (as of May 2012 anyway) wasn’t necessarily a great investment. At the very least, the Sox might have figured that Gonzalez would be a good player but not a superstar going forward, making it worth dumping all that salary even if it meant losing a capable first baseman. With all of those big names leaving town, what was notable was the number of familiar faces staying put. Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Ortiz weren’t going anywhere. And despite the pitching staff’s major struggles, Lester, Buchholz, and others would stay put as well.

Ninety-four games into this season, Boston’s three most valuable position players have been … Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Ortiz. Though he hasn’t shown the same power that he displayed during his MVP season, Pedroia has done everything else well, showing off the usual Gold Glove–caliber defense and ramping up his already excellent on-base skills, to where he’s now flirting with a .400 OBP. Ellsbury’s power has been even more absent, with just three homers all year; but he’s hitting .308 with a .372 OBP, showing his usual excellent range in center, and leading the majors in both stolen bases and overall Baserunning Runs. All Ortiz has done at age 37 is produce more at the plate than anyone in baseball other than Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. You could argue that Pedroia wasn’t going anywhere even if a full-on teardown occurred, given his skill, his extremely team-friendly contract, and his identification with Red Sox fans and the team’s brand. But heading into last offseason, Ellsbury had one year left before free agency, and Ortiz actually was a free agent. Trading one and letting the other walk were reasonable options, especially with Ellsbury coming off a lost season and Ortiz having missed nearly half the year and heading into his late-30s. Keeping them all has paid off in a big way, with Boston leading the majors in runs scored this season.

The bigger surprise has been the recaptured success of the starting rotation. Of the five pitchers to make the most starts last year for Boston, three returned this year: Lester, Buchholz, and Felix Doubront. Though an upgrade over the carnage wrought by Beckett (5.23 ERA), Aaron Cook (5.65 ERA), and Daisuke Matsuzaka (8.28 ERA!!!) figured to be a slam dunk, the two pitchers taking their place didn’t exactly elicit palpitations of excitement.

The first was Lackey. The list of gripes with Lackey was once a mile long, with fans and media blaming him for everything from showing up teammates with hostile gestures on the mound when things went wrong to actually making a hell of a lot go wrong. Critics started bringing up names like Jose Offerman and Julio Lugo, then asking if Lackey’s $82.5 million deal might trump those and all others as the worst in Red Sox history. When the Sox announced in October 2011 that Lackey was headed for Tommy John surgery, the standard snarky response was to cheer, knowing Lackey couldn’t possibly light himself and his team on fire anymore, at least not for a full season. Then this spring, when pitchers and catchers began trickling in at Fort Myers, something funny happened: Lackey looked good. He’d lost a ton of weight and looked to be in better shape than he was during his peak years in Anaheim. He has been a revelation ever since. In 15 starts, Lackey has produced a 2.80 ERA and 3.16 xFIP, with the best strikeout (22.9 percent), walk (4.9 percent), and ground ball (50.6 percent) percentages of his career. He has been particularly dominant heading into the All-Star break, going seven or more innings in his past five starts, with a 2.25 ERA, .649 opponents’ OPS, 36 strikeouts, and just four walks in 36 innings pitched. There have been other pleasant surprises who’ve helped push the Sox into first place (we’ll get to those in a minute), but no player in all of baseball this year has turned complete gloom and doom into good vibes the way Lackey has.

The second pitcher to join the 2013 rotation was Ryan Dempster. Though last winter’s market for starting pitching was thin, it did include a marquee name in Zack Greinke, the kind of pitcher a big-revenue team like the Red Sox might seem able, and eager, to sign under typical circumstances. So when Boston looked over the raw sewage deposit that was last year’s rotation and decided that Dempster was the answer, waves of disappointment rolled in. Sure, Dempster’s two-year cost some $120 million less than the monster contract Greinke got from the Dodgers. But coming off a 69-win season, a soon-to-be-36-year-old right-hander with a career 4.33 ERA din’t inspire much confidence. Yes, Dempster was coming off one of the best seasons of his career. But he’d also never pitched for an AL East team, and again, when the situation seemed to scream for an ace, what the Sox got was Ryan Dempster.

Turns out he’s been fine, for the most part. Dempster has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 14 of 19 starts, which on a high-scoring team like the Red Sox will often be good enough to get the job done. He has benefited from some fortuitous timing, serving up 20 home runs and 50 walks in 110⅓ innings, but rarely combining the two — that’s how you get a serviceable 4.24 ERA with Fenway as your home park, but also a poor 4.98 FIP. Still, a dose of context is in order. Dempster wasn’t replacing some phenomenal pitcher who’d been wooed away by a more aggressive team. All he had to do to help the team was provide an upgrade over Cook and Matsuzaka. He’s done that, at what’s now about the cost of a two-win player on the open market.

Signing Shane Victorino prompted a similar round of skepticism: Why sign a player for three years and $39 million when he’s coming off a season in which he hit just .255/.321/.383? Here we had another case of the Red Sox understanding both replacement level and the cost of talent. Even with those modest offensive numbers, Victorino was a three-win player in 2012 thanks to his excellent defense and baserunning, never mind that he would have cost tens of millions more had he hit the open market just a year earlier after posting huge numbers in 2011. A similar reported deal for Mike Napoli looked a little sketchier given serious concerns that arose over Napoli’s hip. But both parties renegotiated the deal once the hip problems proved too much to pass a physical, such that Napoli is now on a one-year, $5 million deal, with the possibility of earning another $8 million in incentives if his health holds up. Victorino has had a nice bounceback season, hitting .290/.336/.408 with plenty of defense and baserunning value, while Napoli has more or less replicated his 2012 production on a park-adjusted basis. Neither player qualifies as a star, but both constitute enormous upgrades over the Mauro Gomezes who polluted last year’s roster.

Really, everything the Red Sox did — and especially what they didn’t do — boiled down to recognizing what they had. While critics lamented a team that appeared content with mediocrity, Cherington and company kept cooler heads, and recognized September 2011 and the entire 2012 season for what they were: wildly unlikely scenarios that didn’t reflect the true quality of the organization’s talent, both at the major league level and on the farm. When Nate Silver introduced his PECOTA projection system for players in 2003, he took great care to define its parameters. PECOTA’s forecasts considered many possible outcomes for each individual player, from a 10th-percentile projection that would include injuries and numbers way down from career norms, all the way up to a 90th-percentile breakout that would shock the baseball world and thrill fantasy players savvy and lucky enough to take the plunge. What the Red Sox experienced over 1⅙ seasons amounted to a first-percentile outcome, the lowest of the low.

Even with that September 2011 collapse, the Sox still won 90 games that season, good enough to challenge for a playoff spot most years, especially now that we’ve got two wild-card spots per league. That talent was still there in 2012, but because of various factors — injuries, Valentine, some bro in Allston who jinxed the team by not sitting on the left side of the couch while watching games — we never saw the results. This year we have, from Pedroia, Ellsbury, Ortiz, and Lackey, from Buchholz pitching the best ball of his career (before hitting the DL); from Doubront joining Matt Harvey, Domonic Brown, Matt Moore, and others on the Grantland breakout brigade; from Koji Uehara solidifying what threatened to become another bullpen mess after more injuries ensued; from Daniel Nava going from a player the Red Sox once signed for a buck to a key part of the lineup; and from a new crop of homegrown talent starting to make its presence felt in the majors.

We’ve asked what kind of steps teams like the Brewers and Phillies — two recently successful teams like the Red Sox who also dropped sharply and suddenly in the standings — should take next. In both cases a more aggressive course of action has seemed appropriate. The Phillies’ core was older and not as strong as Boston’s, plus the team also lacked the minor league strength and depth to augment the big club, whether by promotion or as attractive trade bait. Thus “Blow Up the Phillies” has remained the mantra ’round these parts. Milwaukee’s lineup might’ve been able to hang with Boston’s, but the Crew has nowhere near as much pitching as the Sox did. That makes at least something of a reload process, complete with at least a handful of deadline deals, a logical step to take.

You could argue that even the most optimistic Red Sox decision makers didn’t expect anything quite this great in 2013; if late-2011 and all of 2012 counted as a first-percentile outcome, this year might fall somewhere in the 80s. But a strong rebound season was certainly a reasonable possibility, and most of us just flat-out missed it. Other than Lackey’s incredible turnaround and unlikely Rookie of the Year front-runner Jose Iglesias’s BABIP of infinity, you’d have a tough time finding many happenings that truly came out of nowhere. We just didn’t see what this team had, because we’re slaves to the recency effect, and because it’s much easier to call for wholesale changes than to sit back, thoroughly analyze a situation, and decide that a terrible outcome might’ve been simply a spectacular fluke, something that might not happen again if a team replays a thousand more seasons starting from the same first step.

Now here’s the bad news if you’re a fan of schadenfreude: The Red Sox are well positioned to be good and stay good for years to come. Sure, they haven’t made the postseason in four years. But during that time, they’ve incubated a new generation of talent that looks like it could become really good. Jackie Bradley Jr. has already made it to the Show. Xander Bogaerts has made it all the way to Triple-A at age 20, where he’s more than holding his own (.267/.357/.475, with a precocious batting eye). Garin Cecchini hit .350/.469/.547 in 63 games at Class A Salem earlier this year, got jumped to Double-A, and has continued to rake. Top pitching prospect Matt Barnes has posted an ERA over 5.00 at Double-A, but he’s also fanned 83 batters in 67⅔ innings, and scouts still like his upside. Top catching prospect Blake Swihart has made good strides in his first tour of high–Class A ball. Webster and De La Rosa both hold promise as they navigate their first full seasons in Boston’s system. Other intriguing prospects are starting to emerge in the lower levels of the minors too.

As for this year, assuming they get Buchholz back soon after the All-Star break as hoped, the Sox will have very few holes to fill. A season-ending injury for Miller, a hard-throwing lefty, turned moderate bullpen needs into more significant ones. But there’s no cheaper or more abundant resource out there for contending teams at the deadline than capable relief pitchers. Third base could be an issue while Stephen Drew sits on the DL and Will Middlebrooks tries to hone his swing in Pawtucket. But if your biggest concern is having a below-average no. 8 hitter, you’re in good shape.

It helps to have the capable John Farrell running things instead of the daily Bobby V horror show. It helps to have the Dodgers willing to take on $260 million in net salaries at a time when you’re looking to dump that much. It sure as hell helps to have enough resources to carry a $159 million Opening Day payroll, yet somehow still get accused by anxious fans for being too cautious, or too cheap, in the offseason. But above all else, the Red Sox are winning this year for the simplest of reasons: They were always a good team. It was just really tough to see for a while.

Filed Under: Boston Red Sox, MLB

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri