9-29-2011: RIP to the Red Sox

Last night was such a fitting end to the Red Sox’ 2011 season. With the Sox up 3-2 and the Rays trailing New York 7-0, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, at worst, we’d be playing that one-game playoff today. But one rain delay, a Dan Johnson pinch-hit home run and a Jonathan Papelbon collapse later, it was suddenly gone. I just have no words. How do you explain a season where we were roundly picked as the best team in baseball, and we collapse like this? How do you explain THIS (image taken from FanGraphs.com):

and THIS:

What those graphs tell you is that the Sox had the game in the bag (over 90% win probability) and the Rays had about a 1% chance of winning in the 8th inning. It just defies all probability. It shouldn’t be able to happen. But it did. And we’re left holding the bag, wondering how it came to this.

The Main Problem: The Rotation

All I know is that once it turned to September, I was watching a different team out there. The defense was poor, and the baserunning was plain bad. There were all kinds of reasons to explain it – overconfidence, the pressure, their poor conditioning, etc. The pitching was never that great to begin with, but it got worse. The lowest ERA of any September starter was 5.25 (Bedard), and as a group they had a collective 7.08 ERA, worst in the AL by far. 27 games in September, and you know how many games where our starters went 7 innings? Three. Here’s the breakdown by pitcher of how long their starts were, and their ERA:

Starter GS IP IP/G ERA
Lester 6 31.2 5.28 5.40
Lackey 5 23.2 4.73 9.13
Beckett 4 23.0 5.75 5.48
Wakefield 4 20.0 5.00 6.30
Bedard 3 12.0 4.00 5.25
Weiland 3 11.2 3.89 9.26
Miller 2 6.1 3.17 15.63
TOTALS 27 128.1 4.75 7.08

Yeah, those are not typos. With that kind of pitching, is it any wonder that half of our bullpen was injured and Daniel Bard was struggling from overwork? Alfredo Aceves was out there every stinking game because he HAD to be. Yes, injuries decimated this staff, but that shouldn’t be the end all. Around mid-month, they should have stepped in and done something. I don’t care what you have to do – start Aceves. Start Felix Doubront. Trade for someone. But DO SOMETHING! Don’t just keep throwing John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland out there.

And where was Curt Young in all this? Could he not do anything to help these guys? When they were all collectively melting down, could he not do anything to stop the bleeding? I don’t know – I don’t think you can pin much on Terry Francona; maybe his bullpen usage was not so great down the stretch, but that’s not a fireable offense.

Problem Two: No Clutch Hitting

Saberists will tell you, there is no such skill as clutch hitting, and basically I agree. Just because David Ortiz had great clutch seasons in the past isn’t predictive that he will do it again in the future. But you can certainly look back and determine who performed in the clutch and who didn’t. And despite having one of the top offenses in baseball, this year’s Red Sox didn’t.

But they scored so many runs! They had so many .300 hitters! Yes to all that. But look at this:

Team WPA Clutch
Twins -9.46 2.20
Blue Jays -0.05 1.39
Rays 4.71 0.86
Tigers 6.94 0.42
Mariners -6.61 0.42
Orioles -2.32 0.22
Indians -2.00 0.15
White Sox -11.30 -1.89
Athletics -8.17 -1.99
Angels -0.77 -2.80
Rangers 10.02 -3.46
Yankees 1.51 -3.81
Royals -5.21 -4.10
Red Sox 3.14 -6.84

Ideally, you want to have a high WPA (measure of meaningful production towards actually winning the game) and high clutch factor (how a player does in high leverage situations, compared with how they usually do, explained here). What you can see is that the Sox had the unclutchiest offense in baseball, and not by a small margin. That’s why we so often had 5 more hits than the other team, but the game is still 4-4. We put runners on, but we weren’t that good at driving them in, especially when we needed to.

As an offense, the Rays had a team WPA of +4.71, third best in the AL. The Red Sox were fourth at +3.14. What that means is, even though we had a prolific offense and Tampa was barely average, they got the hits when they needed them to win. We got many of our hits when we were already bludgeoning teams with a six-run lead.

Problem Three: Team Makeup

It’s been mentioned several times that this team lacks leadership, someone to kick butt in the clubhouse when it needs to be kicked. There were a lot of new faces this year, and maybe there’s no one who’s in your face, but I think there are plenty of vets who care about winning. I generally downplay this kind of concern, since winning removes most clubhouse issues. But I can’t deny that something happened in September, and this team fell into a losing attitude by pressing too hard and getting down on each other.

Maybe it was some overconfidence, followed by blaming others. I think adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in one off-season had sort of a Yankee effect on the clubhouse. Here we were, assembling a team of All-Stars, just like the Yankees of the 2000s. But we know that those teams never won. And neither did we. Here’s hoping for 2012.


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