Hoping this year will be better…but not yet convinced.

Living former Red Sox players at Fenway Park - April 20, 2012 - the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park

Living former Red Sox players at Fenway Park – April 20, 2012 – the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park

69-93; Worst record since 1965; first losing record in 14 seasons. A record of 76 – 114 since Sept 1 2011.

A winter of discontent continued with some disturbing signs in spring training, the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury in the 1st game of 2012 at Fenway Park, and became worse throughout the 2012 season.  The biggest culprit to the success of the Red Sox was the pitching staff.

How bad was the pitching?   The Red Sox staff was equal to or better than the league average in number of wild pitches (42 for the Sox, 52 for league Average).  In every other statistic, they were below the league average.

And so enter John Farrell, the former pitching coach of the Boston Red Sox – the savior of the Red Sox pitching staff.

Just wait a minute though – The Blue Jays pitching last year was equally unimpressive – While the Blue Jays were better than the Red Sox in almost every category, but only better than the league average in one – Intentional walks (20-32). The Blue Jays managed to throw more wild pitches than both the Red sox and League Average (56).

The Red Sox have managed to drastically improve their Bullpen for 2013 – the addition of Uehara and the possible addition of Hanrahan shores up a bullpen that was inconsistent in 2012. The Red Sox get one of the top, and most underrated, closers in the game in Hanrahan. Daniel Bard is expected to return to the bullpen, meaning that if both Bard and  Bailey can find a way to return to 2011 form, the Red Sox will have at least 3 setup pitchers to get to Hanrahan. This could be a bullpen that rivals Rivera and Wetteland in ability to turn a 9 inning game into a 7 inning game.

The starting pitching however,  has not been addressed.

The first problem is that the starting pitching will be reliant on Jon Lester being able to  rebound from his September 2011 through 2012 slide, and get back to his 2010 and early 2011 performance, when his ERA was in the low 3’s.

Beyond that, the Red Sox have issues – Huge issues….

Clay Buchholz has shown moments of brilliance mixed in with disappointment, but has thrown 100 innings or more only twice, in 2010 and 2012. He followed his 2010 with a shortened season due to lower back problems that caused him to miss the end of 2011. Last year he pitched the whole year, but gave up a career high in homeruns and hits. He also appeared at times like the 2008 Buchholz that was tipping his pitches. The Red Sox expect and are depending on him to be their #2, and I’m not sure he’s up to that challenge yet.

Ryan Dempster – who has pitched well for the Chicago Cubs, but has a 4.46 ERA against American League Teams in interleague play, a 4.71 ERA against American League East Teams in interleague; and a 5.53 ERA in American League Ballparks and also against AL East teams in their home ballparks. Even worse is the 9.72 ERA has against the New York Yankees in both the old and new Yankee Stadium….

John Lackey – he has not been the same pitcher since he hurt his arm with the Angels, over a year prior to coming to the Sox.

Felix Doubront – One year, and although he had some good games, his ERA was closer to 5 than I want out of a starter, and I am concerned about how well he could do next year since teams will now have a book on him, and his ERA and WHIP went up after the All-Star break.

Alfredo Aceves – he could end up being in the starting rotation, but for his career his has a higher ERA and WHIP as a starter than a reliever. His ability to pitch 3 innings out of the bullpen, and be a potential 4th setup guy gives him more value out of the Bullpen than as a starter.

And those are the Possible Red Sox Starting 5 right now, Lester, Buchholz,  and 4 number 5 pitchers in Lackey, Dempster, Doubront, and Aceves.

Unfortunately, there is not a Schilling-Martinez or Schilling-Beckett #1-2 combination in this 2013 rotation. There isn’t a servicable middle of the rotation guy like Wakefield and Arroyo were in ’04, or like  Lester and Matsuzaka were in ’07. Unless the Red Sox manage to trade for a significant starter or unless Lester and Buchholz shine for the whole season – the improved bullpen might not get the opportunity to close out games and secure wins for the 2013 Boston Red Sox.

Long Winter of Discontent – almost over…

At this time last year, many Red Sox fans, media members, and even Vegas odds makers had the Red Sox as the favorite represent the American League the World Series. We know how that turned out.

Not surprisingly, some Red Sox fans are concerned about how this year will play out, and many are still upset about how last year ended. That concern and anger is based in fans still not understanding how last year fell apart, which in turn has fans concerned that this season may be a repeat of last season.

On paper the 2011 Boston Red Sox were one of the best teams in baseball. We saw them live up to that billing over a 3.5 month period when they went 64-30. We also saw them play well below those expectation during the first 2 weeks and the last 2 months of the season when they went 26-42 (17-12 in August, 9-30 from April 1-15 and September) and missed the playoffs. The events of game 162 left Boston Red Sox fans with a disappointing end to a long season and, unless they happen to also be a fan of the Bruins or Patriots, started a long, dreary, cold and very weird, winter (and not just because of the lack of snow).

The Red Sox problems last season came down to pitching: 10 different pitchers started games last season for the Sox.  Beckett, Lester, Buchholz, Wakefield, Miller, Bedard, Lackey, Matsuzaka, Aceves, and Weiland. Three aces, followed by three number-five-in-the-rotation guys, two hurt and underperforming pitchers, a great reliever but only so-so starter, and a Triple-A call-up tossed out to fill the void. The Red Sox pitching was so bad that if they had made a one-game playoff, the front office was looking to acquire Bruce Chen to start it. The bullpen wasn’t much better – only Papelbon and Aceves had an ERA under 3.00. Bard probably would have joined them if he didn’t have 9 games where he seemed to be unable to buy an out. The Red Sox lack of pitching depth was their Achilles heel. September was when it was exposed.

But hope springs eternal, and we will learn if the pitching staff has been improved during the season. The Red Sox think they have fixed the problem, and I hope that they are right. Although I personally think Bard would be better suited as a set-up man than as the 5th pitcher in the rotation.

As the start of the Baseball season approaches, I urge Red Sox fans to remember that the April record will not indicate how the season will end. The Red Sox made it to the 2008 ALCS with a 17-12 April record, but also appeared in the 1999 ALCS after an April record of 11-11. The Red Sox missed the playoffs in 2006 with an April record of 14-11 and 2002 after starting 16-7, but won the 2004 World Series  with an April start of 15-6.

The best news is that there is always the trading deadline, and the opportuntiy to fix whatever is broken. Just don’t overreact to their April record, and don’t expect to know how much better or worse the 2012 Red Sox are compared to the 2011 Sox until sometime in June. So when the Red Sox start their 2012 season in Detroit on Thursday, I urge you to put 2011 behind you, enjoy the games, a couple of Fenway Franks, and cheer for the Sox as loud as you can.

MLB Opening Day

It’s 6:10 am EST and the Oakland Athletics are hosting the Seattle Mariners for the first game of the year…in Japan. I wonder if the first pitch was a strike or a ball…Now, as much as I love opening day baseball, and watching the first game of the season, I simply can’t watch this game because I’ll be driving to my job (teaching students). Well, I am driving to my job now, anyways.

I also can’t watch this game because even though the games count, I still find it ridiculous that players go from regular season games back to exhibition games. Playing games that count to then go back to playing games that don’t count…back to spring training. It’s a tease, like being shown your Birthday presents, and then having them taken away and being told you can have them in 3 to 5 days.

Ok, so Ichiro is playing back in Japan for the Mariners, which might be cool to watch if he hadn’t already returned to play in Japan, for Japan, in the World Baseball classic.

That’s right, both Seattle and Oakland return stateside to play more spring training games (Seattle has 5 in Arizona, Oakland plays 3 against the Giants in San Fransisco) before “resuming” their series with 2 games in Oakland.

We’ve been through this 3 times before (Red Sox and Athletics in 2008; Yankees and Rays in 2004; Mets-Cubs in 2000) before, and what astonishes me is that every year there are comments from pundits about how the trip will take its toll on the players – and yet in each year at least one of those teams involved has advanced to the League Championship Series. The only time a team made it to the World Series was the one year where the team didn’t have spring training games after the trip to Japan (the 2000 Mets, which was managed by new Red Sox skipper, Bobby Valentine).

MLB baseball in Japan. Every 4 years. Like the Olympics. Only with less anticipation. And less people viewing at home on TV.

The downside, besides losing 2 home games for the Athletics fan base, is now the “American” opening day (April 4th with the St. Louis Cardinals at the Miami Marlins) now means less to the casual fan. Why? Even though that game will be televised Nationally, it now isn’t the first game of the season. All that this game means for the casual fan is the first game in Miami’s new stadium, against the reigning World Series Champions.

So while I will notice the change in the Standings when I get home from work tomorrow – I, like most baseball fans (I suspect), will not be watching.

At least for the Fenway Faithful, this means that April 5th and the Detroit Tigers are just that much closer…

The Best Red Sox Manager Ever; The New Manager

I remember it vividly: I was walking back to my truck from work wearing my Sox hat and my work sweatshirt; on the harborwalk, right between the waters of Boston Harbor and near the edge of Rowes Wharf by the Coast Guard building at the corner of Atlantic Ave and Northern Ave, with my radio and headphones on; listening to a game that should have been over and won. I heard the call of the pitch, and I came to a complete stop. I dropped my head. I cried.

A phrase re-played in my mind, heard inside my head as clearly as the moment my mother said it. “They always find a way to lose.” That was in my parent’s living room, 16 years 357 days earlier, after the top of the 9th; 3 outs from being the 1986 World Series Champions. I heard this phrase and relived this moment each time the Red Sox lost in the postseason, or lost a late season division lead.

As I started to continue my long, and now depressing, trip home, I had no way of knowing that this would be my last October  as a fan who had never seen their team win a World Series; that this would be the last time that phrase would replay in my mind; the last time hearing or seeing 1918 would make me cringe.

Enter Terry Francona, the 2004 Idiots, and a new era of Boston Baseball. I still can’t even imagine the pressure he must have felt from the expectations he was under. In 4 years as a manager, he had never managed a team to a playoff game, much less a winning record. He was taking over a Red Sox team that had 95 wins the year before; had been in position to win Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS but lost because of a manager’s decision to leave a tiring starter in the game; and then came the 11th inning and Aaron bleeping Boone – and a “curse” that ran back 85 years.

Francona had to have a winning season; make the playoffs; get past the Yankees; win the World Series – If not, his first year could very well be his last. It wasn’t a hope of Red Sox Nation that he manage the Red Sox to victory in the World Series – it was a demand and expectation.

And frankly, the Red Sox got the best Manager they have ever had in team history. Period.

The 2004 World Series Trophy in City Hall Plaz...

Image via Wikipedia

Terry Francona Spent 8 years as the Manager of the Red Sox – only Pinky Higgins (8) and Joe Cronin (15) had as many years as Skipper of the Red Sox. Francona’s 1296 regular season games managed are second to only Cronin (2007).

With that many  regular season games, you’d expect Cronin to have the Most wins (1071) and Francona to have the second most (744) – But Francona had a .574 winning percentage – 9th overall, but only 2nd behind Don Zimmer (.575) with a minimum of 5 years as a Red Sox Manager. He won 192 more games than he lost – a team best, with Joe Cronin a distant 2nd with 155, and Zimmer third at 107. The team average finish in the AL east was 2.3 under Francona, the best of any manager with a minimum of 5 years at the Red Sox helm. The only manager that averaged more wins a season than Terry Francona (93) is Grady Little (94), but Grady only managed the BoSox for 2 years (2002, 2003), and in his first two years (2004, 2005) Francona won an average of 96.5 games.

If you want to look beyond the regular season, and into the postseason, let’s not forget the 2 World Series titles Francona won; Only Bill Carrigan (who?) equals this total, and although he did it back-to-back (1915-16), he did it with some guy named Babe Ruth on his team. Maybe you’ve heard of him…

Oh, the Red Sox made the playoffs 5 out of the 8 years Francona was manager (62.5% of the time). That’s a Red Sox managerial best. Of course he had the wild card…but then so did Grady (50%) and Jimy Williams (40%). Neither Grady or Jimy managed the Sox atop the AL East to make the playoffs, which Francona did in 2007.

So the Red Sox said goodbye to Tito, a manager with a career (including Philly) .529 winning percentage, an average of 85.75 wins per year, winning 114 more games than he lost, and 5 postseason trips over 12 years (41.7%), and 2 World Series wins (16.7%).

He gets “traded” to ESPN for Bobby Valentine.

Bobby V – a manager with a Career .510 winning percentage, an average of 74.5 wins a year, winning 45 more games than he lost, 2 trips to the postseason in 15 years (13.3%), and no world series victories. When you think about it, with the lone exception of managerial experience, Valentine’s résumé is at least on par with Francona’s résumé when he joined the Red Sox for the 2004 season. And the similarity doesn’t end there.

This feels like the start of 2004 – Bobby Valentine has some big shoes to fill and expectations of winning a World Series, the year after the team faltered and failed to reach a goal that appeared complete. No team had missed the playoffs after being 9 games ahead at the start of September.  Bobby Valentine has the additional challenge of managing immediately after the best Red Sox manager ever. Valentine will also have to do it while facing comparisons to Francona, and possibly even criticisms from Francona, all season long.

Like Francona in 2004, I do not envy Bobby Valentine’s position; and I hope that (Like Francona) he can match the high expectations that Boston Fans, especially the Fenway Faithful like me, have for the 2012 Season.

A tribute to Wake and Tek. A look at the overlooked memories and impacts they left RSN with.

The Boston Red Sox no longer have Jason Varitek or Tim Wakefield on their roster. The last time this was the case, I was a student in High School.

Much has been said of Wakefield and his selflessness in regards to the team, and the different roles he was willing to take during his Red Sox career. The story that has been left unrepeated, and the one I think should be recalled, is his debut season with Boston in 1995.

I recall the 1995 season, but not really the pitching staff – Clemens, Zane Smith, Erik Hanson, Vaughn Eschelman, Rheal Cormier and some knuckleballer picked up after being released from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemens was the Ace, they guy who had returned to a sub-3 ERA after an off year, who happened to pitch on a team that couldn’t score runs (11th in AL). Really, at the start of the year, the fan base was thinking of the rotation as Clemens and then a whole bunch of hoping. And that hoping was answered.

On August 14th, a Red Sox pitcher had a 14-1 record, a 1.65 ERA, 6 complete games, 1 shutout. If you told Red Sox fans in March of 1995 that a pitcher would have those stats at that point in the year, every fan would have said it could only be Clemens if it were even possible.

Yet, those were the numbers held by knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. He was challenging the single Season ERA record of 0.96 set by Dutch Leonard, and leading the team in wins and ERA. He would finish the remainder of the season with a 16-8 overall record, and an ERA of 2.95. He led the team in wins, Innings pitched, and finished with the second lowest ERA in baseball to Seattle’s hurler Randy Johnson.  He finished in the top 10 in wins, win loss %, WHIP and Hits per 9innings. He was third in the CY Young voting. This was what was expected of Clemens – and what Wakefield provided.

He was in the summer of 1995 what Pedro Martinez was throughout his career in Boston– a game you didn’t want to miss, and a game you came to expect the Red sox to win. The close to that season paralleled the close to his career – Red Sox Nation hoping he could set a record,  and watching as it slipped just out of his grasp.

Of course, every pitcher needs a catcher. In 1997 the Red Sox acquired their best catcher since Carlton Fisk went to the other Sox.

Jason Varitek.  The Captain.  Tek. Varitek has been praised for his preparation and ability for calling a game behind the plate. While I could repeat much of what has been said about him, I want to point out the 3 seasons that I think highlight his importance to the Red Sox, and that I think show how valuable he was to Red Sox pitchers while he was behind the plate: 2000; 2001; 2006.

June 7th, 2001 Detroit player Shane Halter hits a foul ball behind home plate that Jason Varitek catches with a dive that makes the web gem highlights for the rest of the month. It also breaks his left elbow, ending his season.  The pitching staff when Varitek is behind the plate had a 2.97 ERA; and when Varitek was not behind the plate it had a 4.64 ERA. In 2006 Varitek is again hurt, this time at the end of July, and returns in September. The Red sox pitching staff had a 4.53 ERA during the time when Varitek was playing, and had a record of 77-55. While out, the Red Sox record parallels the collapse of last September: 9-21 and the pitching staff had a 5.81 ERA. The Red Sox had their least number of team wins in 2000, 2001, and 2006 during Varitek’s time in Boston as a regular, everyday player.

In 2000 Tek was healthy, but as with all catchers he needed says off. The pitching staff included both Wakefield and Pedro Martinez, along with these “notables”: Ramon Martinez, Jeff Fassero, Pete Schourek, Rolando Arrojo, Tomo Ohka, and Brian Rose.  The pitching staff had an ERA of 3.96 with Tek behind the plate, and the Red Sox were 70-50 in the games he started. With backup catcher Scott Hatteberg the team ERA ballooned to 5.02, and the Sox were 15-27.

And then there is Varitek’s positioning and ability to block and protect the plate from runners coming down the line, and being aware of the game situation. Ask Eric Byrnes about his ability to do that

Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek – guaranteed Boston Red Sox Hall of Famers.

For what they’ve done and meant for this franchise and fan base, – #’s 49 and 33 should probably join 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 27, and 42 on the right field façade.

Francona versus Valentine? Maybe Red Sox versus Francona…all about alcohol in the clubhouse.

You had to know this was going to happen, and have to know it’s going to happen often. They switched roles, and as an analyst Francona is going to make comments about his former team during the season and Valentine is going to be asked about his thoughts on those comments.
We all know what Tito did as manager of the Boston Red Sox, and we all know how his tenure as skipper of the BoSox came to an inglorious end. Francona fell on his sword for the team at the close of last season, and then the Red Sox front office began to pile trash on top after not renewing his contract.

An anonymous team official reported that Francona had an addiction to painkillers which affected his job performance last season. That report is found to be false.

Then came the story that has stuck, that Francona was allowing players to play video games while eating Fried Chicken and drinking Beer in the clubhouse during games. This has erroneously become the cause of the Red Sox collapse. Predictably, the media and a number of fans (pink hats) clambered onto the “Chicken and Beer” bandwagon, while ignoring the reports that the Red Sox were doing shots in the dugout prior to playoff games in 2004 – which no one seems to complain about, even now.

The big news this weekend from Fort Meyers should have been the reporting of players, but instead became the report of Valentine’s banning alcohol from the clubhouse, and Francona’s comment of the “Beer Ban” being a PR stunt. The thing is I’m convinced that Francona is right; the beer ban is a PR stunt, but not a PR stunt perpetrated by Valentine.

Yes, Valentine is right that banning alcohol from the clubhouse is a good decision, but instead of announcing this new policy ASAP, the Red Sox waited for Bobby Valentine to make the official announcement after the full team reported to spring training. So the question in response to Bobby Valentine’s statement is this: Why didn’t the Red Sox make this good decision earlier in the offseason? Why did the organization wait until Spring training? Why did the organization wait for Bobby Valentine to make the announcement?

The fact is that the Boston Red Sox were going to ban alcohol from the clubhouse no matter whom the manager happened to be this season. This policy can be directly attributed to the combination of media coverage and the complaints by fans on both talk radio and on redsox.com about the teams collapse, and that collapse being linked to, if not directly attributed to, the presence of “chicken and beer” in the clubhouse. I’m sure John Henry and Larry Lucchino were unhappy about the Red Sox being the butt of numerous jokes centered around Halloween costumes of Red Sox jerseys with KFC buckets and beer bottles. If anyone following the Red Sox was surprised by the decision to ban alcohol, the only explanation is that they must have been living with their heads buried in the ground since August 30th, 2011.

At the Haloween party I went to, with KFC beer drinking Red Sox costumed party-goer in atendance, the discussion wasn’t about if the Red Sox would ban alcohol from the clubhouse, but rather when and how they would announce it.

Simply put, Bobby Valentine making the announcement gives the appearance that the policy comes from the manager, and not from the Red Sox front office. As with anything in life, when things go wrong the person making the decisions deserves the blame. If management makes the decision to change the policy on alcohol in the clubhouse then they would deserve the blame for the fried chicken and beer last season. If Bobby V makes the announcement, the media reports the story as “Valentine Bans Beer in Clubhouse,” not as “Red Sox Bans Beer in Clubhouse.”  It provides the implication that this decision is solely the manager’s, and that no responsibility for the alcohol issue should lay with upper management. It also supports the erronous assertion that the alcohol in the clubhouse was the contributing factor to the Red Sox September struggles and collapse. That simply isn’t the case.

The Red Sox could have followed the lead of organizations like the Cardinals, Brewers, and (yikes) the Yankees who have banned Alcohol from the clubhouses, including the visiting clubhouse at Yankee stadium since 2007. These organizations, not their managers, have placed the ban on alcohol in the clubhouse.

So yes, this appears to be the work of the Red Sox front office trying to avoid taking blame for the chicken and beer, and putting further blame onto the shoulders of Tito. I think the fried chicken and beer is a red herring, and was not the cause of the Red Sox collapse, no matter how much the pink hats want it to be. The blame over alcohol in the clubhouse should ultimately not belong to the Red Sox organization. The heart of the matter is that there is a lack of an alcohol policy by MLB, which has chosen to leave the decision up to the individual organizations.

While I feel Francona does not deserve the blame, I do disagree with his statement on Mike and Mike (ESPN radio) that “We used to tell the guys, you have certain privileges. Don’t abuse the privileges or they will be taken away.”  Sadly, alcohol abuse has caused problems for ballplayers, and this has not resulted in the privilege being taking away. Now I don’t think Francona is the cause of the alcohol problems, but Josh Hamilton has been under the microscope for his recent relapse for drinking a beer. Miguel Cabrera recently had his own DUI incident, although not directly linked to alcohol in a clubhouse. Josh Hancock died in 2007 from a drunken driving accident attributed to drinking in the clubhouse, which also happened to follow the spring training DUI of his manager Tony LaRussa earlier that season. The death of Hancock led to the Cardinals ban of alcohol in the clubhouse, but it should have sparked MLB to make that decision league-wide as well. However, and unfortunately, the prevalence of alcohol abuse is not a recent development. Looking back at history we can find players with alcohol issues ranging from Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and even back to the good old days of Babe Ruth. Even a recent episode of the TV show Psych had guest star Wade Boggs joke that he once drank 64 beers on a team cross country flight. The privilege has been abused repeatedly, and not been taken away from ballplayers.

The sad thing is that the butt of the alcohol joke is on MLB for not having a clubhouse alcohol policy in the first place.

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