The Top 10 Reasons For The Red Sox EPIC September Collapse
Pundits across the baseball universe are characterizing the twin September collapses by the Red Sox and Atlanta Braves as the worst choke jobs in the history of Major League Baseball, and some have said they may be the worst collapses in the history of all professional sports. It’s hard to disagree with either assessment… no matter how painful the acknowledgement.
What makes it harder to digest is the level of expectation that was built around the 2011 edition of the Red Sox – a team that was purportedly “built to win this year”.
Amid all of the buzz that accompanied the team back in spring training, I expressed deep reservations about whether this team would live up to heightened expectations. While Red Sox Nation was largely in the habit of speculating that the ballclub would win 100 or more games, I warned that we should lower our sights. I cautioned that injuries could derail the ’11 Express. I alluded to the lack of physical condition of some of the players (while simultaneously praising John Lackey and David Ortiz for being in exceptional condition). I openly hoped the club would part ways with Tim Wakefield (because of age, increasing ineffectiveness, and the fact that his presence on the roster might inhibit a useful swing man from accepting a contract with the organization).
Injuries bit us once again. Physical conditioning again sidelined Clay Buchholz, who needs to become a workout warrior this off-season. John Lackey’s personal problems (wife’s cancer, and impending divorce) distracted him throughout the campaign. Wakefield was pitiful, yet again, and it is again my hope and expectation the front office will part company with him (or will they submarine yet another season due to blind loyalty because they want to let him make a run at the club record for career wins?).
And then there were the failures — the players who didn’t produce to the level of their abilities. In some instances it was a year-long problem, in other instances it all came down to swallowing a chicken bone in September. Whatever your take on the September swan dive into an empty pool, here is my list of the Top Ten Reasons for the Red Sox September Collapse:
Number Ten: Conditioning / Injuries
Ball players have the ability to control their physical fate (to some extent) by undertaking a rigorous conditioning regimen, both in-season and throughout the off-season, while in most instances they are at the mercy of the whims of fate when it comes to injuries. The best they can do it put themselves in the best possible position to endure the physical grind of a 162-game schedule without piling up DL stints.
RHP Clay Buchholz has had back issues in the past… some would say he has a chronic back issue. He was felled by back problems in 2010. In light of the team’s expectations and his newfound prominence in the rotation, he owed it to his teammates to report to spring training in stellar condition and to maintain his conditioning throughout the season. He failed to report to Fort Myers in superior condition… and while it is possible the young groom and new daddy felt he had better things to do in the off-season, there are a few million members of Red Sox Nation who believe he needs to start approaching his duties like a professional. His body broke down as the year progressed. He let his teammates and organization down… he let himself down… and he let The Nation down. He must assume the responsibility for those failings. The buck stops with him. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but it is clear he didn’t do everything within his power to withstand the grind of 32 starts. (Much has been written about the generally woeful physical conditioning of SEVERAL of the Red Sox players… no need to re-hash it here other than to say Buchholz wasn’t alone and that the front office needs to take the issue seriously this winter).
On the flip side there is 3B Kevin Youkilis, who was significantly hampered by injuries for the second year in a row. Fluke. Fate. Bad luck. Whatever you call it, you would like to think that he is owed a season or two of good health moving forward. But the point is that you can never predict what is going to happen in terms of injuries… sometimes you are just snake-bit.
Number Nine: Carl Crawford
This is not a consideration of all of his failings throughout the entire season: Lord knows we have had enough of that! As with all of the people included on the Top 10 List, this discussion focuses strictly on his role in the club’s September Collapse.
Crawford was supposed to be a top-of-the-order catalyst in Boston. He hasn’t been. Most members of The Nation have been throwing him under the bus all season… I am not numbered among those people. I can’t believe he suddenly forgot how to play baseball. He is an excellent ballplayer with superior skills who keeps himself in extraordinary physical condition. He did not respond well to the pressures of playing in a city like Boston, but he will grow into it – probably next year. Curtis Granderson was a complete bust in New York last year – in the first year of his tenure with the Yankees. He was excoriated in the same manner Crawford has been criticized this season in Boston. We all know it is a possibility he will end up the AL MVP for 2011 (though he could lose out to Jacoby Ellsbury because a number of voters may split the Yankees vote between Grandy and 2B Robinson Cano). You don’t quit on a guy like Crawford…
With that said, he was paid BIG bucks to be the kind of player who stops losing skeins. In September, he hit just .264… but more importantly he did NOTHING to help his team win when he did get on base. He stole a total of ONE base in the month of September. O-N-E. He disappeared on the base paths. In a season which could have been prolonged by one win, how many times did he blow an opportunity to steal a ‘win’ from the jaws of defeat in September?
And let us not forget he failed to catch Robert Andino’s line drive in the ninth inning last night…
Number Eight: David Ortiz
Remember when it seemed like he ALWAYS came up with a c-l-u-t-c-h hit? Well, in a month in which the pitching sputtered and his team needed him the most, Big Papi hit a not-so-robust .287, with just 1 HR and 8 RBI. Did he get tired? Was he trying to do too much?
Whatever the reason for his disappearance, he was a non-factor when needed the most. Maybe the talking heads are right – maybe there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. By comparison, C/DH Ryan Lavarnaway hit 2 HR and drove in 8 RBI in about one-third the number of at-bats as Ortiz. Just sayin’…
Number Seven: The Back End of the Rotation
Andrew Miller was 0-2, with an 11.70 ERA, in September… Tim Wakefield was 1-2, 5.25, in September.
It is not their fault they were asked to pitch meaningful innings in September, but it is their fault that they failed miserably when asked to do so.
Is there blame to be assigned?
Is it the GM’s fault he didn’t build a deeper rotation last winter (he said back in February that the rotation lacked sufficient depth)? He was the one who relied on the too-oft-injured Daisuke Matsuzaka, the young Clay Buchholz, the aging and increasingly ineffective Tim Wakefield… and free-agent-bust John Lackey. I foresaw major problems with the rotation in March when I pleaded the club should sever ties with Wakefield… though I obviously never foresaw a collapse of the magnitude we just witnessed.
Or maybe you can’t assign blame to the GM… maybe you have to say that ‘shit happens’. Dice-K showed flashes of his old self in spring training… Buchholz was young and resilient… Wakefield would not be asked to shoulder too much of a workload assuming good health among the five regular starters. And then there was Alfredo Aceves… and Felix Doubront… and ???.
(For the record, I DO assign blame for lots of the collapse to Theo Epstein – read on, McDuff)
Number Six: Terry Francona
The Collapse was not his fault. He had to work with what his GM and ownership gave him for a roster. He doesn’t have any control over injuries and the effects of a depleted roster. He doesn’t hit or pitch or catch or field during ballgames. When all is said and done, the lion’s share of the responsibility lies with the players.
But that doesn’t let Tito off the hook completely. There are times when you have to wonder if he has a pulse. Yeah, I know the players love him because he is a ‘player’s manager’, but the responsibility of any leader is to know what buttons to push – and when to push them. You cannot push the same button ALL the time and expect different results. He is basically a “One Trick Pony”.
“We have to stay calm.” “We can’t get too emotional because we can’t ride an emotional roller coaster.” “We need to stay with it and things will turn around.”
Well, they didn’t turn around. I don’t want Ozzie Guillen in Boston, but just once I would have like to have seen some of Ozzie’s fire spew forth from Tito’s mouth. Once. Maybe ten days ago… or maybe even on Friday at Yankee Stadium after Russell Martin started talking about his hate for the Red Sox. Just once I would have like to have seen a little Billy Martin or Earl Weaver fire in the belly. Run out on to the field… kick some dirt… scream at the umpire (and then whisper to him to throw you out of the game so that you can get your player’s attention).
Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Just an automaton repeating the same old tired refrain.
Number Five: Josh Beckett
He is supposed to be one of your aces – your co-ace along with Jon Lester – but with sky falling around him he went 1-2, with a 5.48 ERA, in September. He ended the season at 13-7, 2.89 — respectable enough stats although you want to see your ‘ace’ win more than 13 games. But when it mattered most he was just as responsible for the season ending prematurely as anyone on this list.
Both of his last two starts were against the last-place Baltimore Orioles. In retrospect, has he won EITHER of those starts they team would be playing tonight… if he won both of them they would be in Detroit getting ready for Justin Verlander tomorrow night.
He LOST both. He tossed 13.1 innings over the two starts (7 IP and 6.1 IP). He allowed six runs on seven hits – with two home runs – in EACH of those outings. He’ll be on his ranch in in Spring, TX, this weekend. The baseball season will continue in other cities. When the Red Sox season was on the line, he failed to deliver.
Number Four: Theo Epstein
No getting around this one. He is the guy who put the roster together. He is the guy who brought Tim Wakefield back – in spite of all the indicators that showed he could not be relied on to shoulder any semblance of a workload. He is the guy who allowed the team to be in a situation where it had to rely on Daisuke Matsuzaka – in spite of all of the evidence he should not be relied upon. He is the guy who compiled a roster devoid of depth in the starting rotation – in spite of the fact that pitching and defense win in baseball.
And although he was staring at a team depleted by the impact of injuries and a bevy of poor performances, he is the guy who went out and acquired the most-injured-pitcher-in-baseball over the last four years, the talented-but-unreliable Erik Bedard, for the stretch run. So why should we have expected him to be healthy just because he donned a Red Sox uniform?
Wanna know why the Phillies have become the best team in the game over the last four season? Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Oswalt and Worley… as opposed to Beckett, Buchholz, Lackey, Lester and Wakefield. There is a dramatic gulf in the experience, health, talent and consistency of the men on those two lists. It must be said the buck stops with Theo…
Number Three: John Lackey
The guy has had a miserable time since arriving in Boston… and I still believe much of it has been a perfect storm of bad luck and fate as much as anything else. He has had to deal with his wife’s cancer and a disintegrating marriage off the field, and health woes and poor performance on the field (though it is likely the performance problems are largely related to a lack of performance brought about by the off-the-field issues).
Still, as a professional being paid millions of dollars annually, he’s ultimately responsible to figure out how to leave the personal stuff at home and perform effectively when he is at the ballpark. And in the throes of filing for divorce from his wife he went 0-2, with a 9.13 ERA and 2.03 WHIP in September. THAT is not acceptable.
Number Two: Jon Lester
Your other staff ace was 1-3, 5.96, in September. He was okay last night, but on a night when St Louis ace Chris Carpenter stepped it up and led his team into the post-season (he threw a two-hitter), Lester came up short (two runs over six innings on short rest).
But the team NEVER should have been in a situation where it needed him to pitch on short rest just to get into the post-season – and he is a BIG part of the reason they were in that position! Prior to last night, his last three efforst looked like this:
September 11th, at TB: 4 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, 3 BB
September 17th, vs TB: 7 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 4 BB
September 24th, at NY: 2.2 IP, 8 ER, 8 H, 1 BB
After seven shutout innings in Toronto on September 6th, he was 15-6, 2.93… he finished the season at 15-9, 3.47. That’s an increase of more than a half-run in his ERA in just three outings, and as a once-hopeful season came crumbling down around him, Jon Lester fell to pieces.
Number One: Daniel Bard
Do you still think he is your closer in 2012? The answer here is a resounding “no!”
He was brilliant in mid-season, but as the pressure mounted he was brutal – and proved that he is not yet ready to be the closer of this ballclub. He was 0-4, with a 10.64 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September. There were times that it looked like he couldnt have hit the ocean if he was standing on the deck of a cruise ship.
He choked. There is no other way to describe it. I don’t want to hear any spin from the front office in December alleging he was dealing with shoulder soreness. We already had to listen to him claim he had a mechanical problem that he discovered and fixed – after that he had once decent outing before imploding yet again.
It seems a given that Jonathan Papelbon will not be back next year. He has said all along that he wants to test free agency and set a benchmark for contracts for closers… and as an organization the Red Sox do not believe in tying up money in closers over an extended period such as he will be seeking. So it is goodbye, Pappy, and thanks for 2007.
I would love to see the front office sign SD Padres closer Heath Bell, but the club will run into the same issues with him as they would with Papelbon – dollars and years. It seems to me they are likely to move in the direction of someone like Joe Nathan – another injury reclamation project, a la John Smoltz and Brad Penny and other low-risk, high-reward signings of the past.
Of course, the questions are: what rewards have they ever really garnered from such a signing, and whether you can afford to take a gamble like that at the back end of your bullpen.
You can get away with taking a gamble at the back end of the rotation because another starter can always be found (this season’s evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), but guys with the mentality to be a closer are few and far between. They don’t grow on trees.
The organization has $50 million in contracts coming off the books this winter (see ya, JD Drew!). Some players are due raises (most notably, A-Gon) and hopefully they’ll re-sign Big Papi to a team-friendly contract, but they will have the money they need to make a splash or two in free agency, and maybe the front office will determine that closer is a place where they cannot go cheap.
But one thing seems evident after (and as a result of) September – Daniel Bard is not ready to be this team’s closer in 2012. Moreover, I am left to wonder what his meltdown has done to his confidence, and how he will perform even in a setup role in 2012. IMHO, all bets are off when it come to him… if his confidence is lost he could become another Craig Hansen.