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April 23, 2012

Out of Left Field

Designing a Nervous Breakdown

by Matthew Kory

The Red Sox this year were expected to compete with the Yankees and the rest of the American League. They have instead imploded as much as any team can within the constraints of 14 games. The starting pitching has been monkey-with-irritable-bowel-syndrome putrid, the manager’s in-game decisions haven’t backfired so much as they’ve taken their weapons and joined the other side, and to see the relief work as remotely viable one must hearken back to a time before people could read and write and therefore did not know what “remotely viable” means. But the bench has been decent. So there’s that.

While they don’t have the worst record in baseball—that belongs to the Royals—they are third. That would have shocked the projection systems. Our own PECOTA had the Red Sox at 89 wins. My projection system, IMADETHISUP, had the Red Sox winning 120 games. Instead, the team is on a 46-win pace. The difference between PECOTA and the Red Sox’ actual pace is equivalent to the difference between last year’s playoff Rays and the 1962 Mets.

Saturday’s disaster against the Yankees was the cherry on top of this poop sundae. Facing professional placeholder Freddy Garcia and his fearsome 85-mph fastball, the Red Sox picked up a few runs here and a few more there and, hey, before you knew it they were up 9-0. Red Sox starter Felix Doubront didn’t allow a run until Mark Teixeira’s sixth-inning, two-out solo homer. Having thrown 99 pitches and holding an eight-run lead, manager Bobby Valentine removed the young lefty Doubront. It was a perfectly reasonable move that shouldn’t need defending. After all, blowing that lead would mean giving up nine runs over three innings, which would amount to an ERA of 27.00. Ha ha! That would be ridiculous.

It would be. What happened next would make a bad sequel to Fever Pitch. Over the next two innings, six Red Sox pitchers—two failed to record even a single out—were responsible for this:

  • 14 runs allowed (13 earned)
  • 12 hits (six for extra bases)
  • Five walks (two intentional)
  • A 2.31 increase in the team’s bullpen ERA

All this took place minutes after Philip Humber, a waiver-wire pickup by the Chicago White Sox, was throwing the 21st perfect game in history. That’s a bit like a beautiful girl you could have dated marrying a prince while you get electrocuted trying to update your Match.com profile. And while you’re lying on the floor, twitching, your dog pees on you.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Matt. We’re 14 games into the season. Fourteen! That’s 8.6 percent of the season. That means there is 91.4 percent remaining. So, what the heck are you talking about?

Fair point, italicized voice. Much of the season remains and for all my whiny drama (and that of many, many others) the Red Sox are only 4 1/2 games out of first place. At this time last year the Diamondbacks were 4 1/2 games behind Colorado, the Tigers were 3 1/2 behind the Indians, and the Rays and Red Sox were 3 and 3 1/2 behind the Yankees, respectively. All those teams made the playoffs, with the exception of the Red Sox, who missed it by a single two-strike pitch to Nolan Reimold. This deficit isn’t a death sentence. It isn’t close.

But the deficit isn’t really the problem so much as the way the deficit has been achieved. For starters, the Red Sox have a 6.68 ERA. During last September’s 7-20 collapse that ultimately cost them a spot in the playoffs, the Red Sox had a 5.84 ERA. Somehow removing John Lackey’s historically atrocious numbers; Daisuke Matsuzaka’s pre-surgery batting-practice sessions; the 23 games started by Tim Wakefield, who had the good grace to retire; and Andrew Miller, who hasn’t had the decency to follow Wakefield’s lead, the Red Sox still get almost a run worse?

The Red Sox had three guys on their major-league roster with ERAs below 3.00 and they just traded one of them. The good news is that every pitcher on the roster has an ERA below 49, since Mark Melancon and his 49.50 ERA were sent down to Triple-A. Here is his Triple-A picture:

Yes, the former ace set-up man in the Red Sox bullpen is shown (on milb.com) wearing a minor-league Yankees uniform. Nice try, Red Sox, but everybody knows he's your guy now.

Leaving the pitching behind (much like the entire New England region would no doubt love to do), the team’s offense has been fine, if not up to last year’s league-best standard. Ah, but injuries. Jacoby Ellsbury—whose training regimen of grabbing black cats and sprinting under ladders may have to be rethought—subluxed his shoulder, which I believe means a 1950’s-era vacuum cleaner fell on him.

It’s entirely debatable whether or not Ellsbury was capable of replicating his magnificent 2011 season, but it isn’t debatable whether Ellsbury would be better than his replacement, Jason Repko, or his replacement’s replacement, the 34-year-old Marlon Byrd, who is hitting .070. I’d give you more advanced stats but, well, .070. Peachy.

The good news is Ellsbury probably doesn’t need surgery, but when he was injured two seasons ago they said the same thing and he effectively missed the whole season.

You see that last sentence? That is the Red Sox fan in me talking. It slips out every now and again, like a cold you just can’t seem to beat. I’m a man of reason, of logic, of numbers. Oh sure, I don’t understand any of them, but I trust in those who do*. All of last September, when the Red Sox were firmly in control of their fate but losing right and left, I stopped people on the street to tell them the Red Sox were going to the playoffs. All those talk-radio nincompoops were just being irrational and silly. Calm down, I said. Teams simply don’t blow leads this big in this short period of time. Yet as it turned out, I was wrong and the bleating hordes were right. That’ll teach me to grab perfect strangers on the street by the shoulders and shake them while yelling, “Calm down, nincompoop!”

* This is known as the Church of Colin Wyers. “Is this heaven?” “It’s Iowa.” “So yes then?”

Not only did Boston blow it, they blew it with such flair, such panache as to make it as difficult and painful for everyone involved as they could. From afar it was probably impressive. Maybe even funny. From close in, it made you want to gouge your eyes out with forks. 

These are a team, an organization, and a fanbase that expect to win. The loveable (if they ever were) losers for almost nine decades are gone, replaced by the sense of entitlement that winning creates. Yet over the past two months of baseball, stretching into last year, the Red Sox have won 11 of 41 games. The hysteria from New England could restart the Salem witch trials.

Whether or not Ellsbury ever sees the field this year, the true talent level on this team is well above where the Red Sox have played to this point. Over the next three weeks, Boston plays the Twins, the White Sox, the A’s, the Orioles, the Royals, the Indians, and the Mariners. That’s a schedule for a turnaround if ever one existed.

Ellsbury should return in a few months, Matsuzaka may be back even sooner, and shortly thereafter the bullpen should get Andrew Bailey back. You know, until he gets hurt again. There is hope. There should be hope. But if things continue as they have been, I have a suggestion for the pitching staff that should fix everything: keep throwing to first base. The earth will crash into the sun eventually.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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