April 27, 2018

Removing An Obstruction, a New Tide Is Restoring the Sox

July 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Three hundred fifty years ago, when New England built roadbeds and train tracks through coastal salt marshes, the builders had the good sense to build culverts and other openings to let the tidal sea water in. The mistake they made was allowing an inadequate amount to flow through, resulting in dieback and the other symptoms of a degraded salt marsh.

In simplest terms, when the amount of water that flowed in with the tide was limited, a balanced, vibrant ecosystem that included sea water, tiny fish and various forms of plant and bird life was replaced by a marsh offering fewer environmental benefits.

The simple solution: rebuilding to allow greater tidal flow. Since the late 1970s, replacing small culverts (pipes) with larger ones has been one of the most popular forms of salt marsh restoration. Obstructions are removed to allow more sea water to flow in, and the productive ecosystem is restored like magic.

When the Red Sox dumped A.J. Pierzysnki, were they trying to do the same thing?

Sox management was likely thinking more about the environmental science of the baseball clubhouse than the wonderful New England salt marshes when it jettisoned the veteran catcher just a few games before the All-Star break.

The timing conveys that this was about more than the veteran catcher’s sub-par performance on both sides of the plate. The Sox—who at the time were in last place—could have held onto Pierzysnki and waited for an injury elsewhere to find a trading partner in need of a veteran, left-handed hitting catcher. Instead, they ate $3.7 million for the right to dump him right away.

While GM Ben Cherington talked about turning the season over to young prospects like Christian Vazquez, could he also have been thinking about making one more grab for lightning in a bottle? Could he have thought that in this year’s low-scoring Major League Baseball season, his team would be better off with a tandem of excellent defensive catchers? Could he have also considered the zeitgeist of the Boston clubhouse, c. 2013, and wondered how it could be restored?

When a team picks up a 37-year-old catcher, there is always the chance that it is buying past the expiration date, and the Sox’s first-half problems went well beyond Pierzynski’s performance. But there were signs that this was not working out, besides Pierzynski’s  .254/.286./.348 offense and lousy defense.

He had already grown prickly with the Boston media, the canary in the coal mine for other Red Sox meltdowns (in your Sox Encyclopedia, look up “Valentine, Bobby”). Upon his departure, a story by Rob Bradford on WEEI.com noted that some unnamed teammates were not sad to see Pierzysnki go, and cited lack of interest and investment. Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley said any finger pointed at Pierzysnki should instead be pointed at clubhouse leaders.

However, it’s not like you can pull aside a full-grown man for not being “all in.”

More likely, Pierzynski was just clogging up the energy in the Sox clubhouse in the same way that he clogged the bases with his tortoise-like speed. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad fit.

As two scribes discussed on a radio show the day after the release, there were group conversations in his former corner of the locker room, something not witnessed earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Vazquez’ manager made note of how immersed in the success of his pitcher the young catcher was and the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo repeated a stat that Vazquez didn’t drop a single pitch in his first start, both positives that highlight Pierzysnki negatives.

The team has gone 7-1 since the change. The defense is better and the offense is better. Elements such as pinch-hit home runs and one-run wins that were hallmarks of 2013 have also returned. They have pitching and Shane Victorino is back from injury, and Brock Holt has filled the leadoff spot, and the left field platoon is back, and Jackie Bradley Jr. has hit well in July and if Xander Bogearts gets on track, and if and if and if, it could happen.

Those who remember “Morgan’s Magic” from 1988 remember how winning 19-of-20 can propel a team back into the pennant race. In that stretch, when new manager Joe Morgan moved slumping Jim Rice down in the batting order and then went toe-to-toe with the slugger after pinch-hitting Spike Owen for him, Morgan removed another kind of clog—creating a better team atmosphere—and the team responded.

Can one guy in a clubhouse of 25 players make that big a difference? Yes. It’s one reason corporate consultants make so much money at “How to Deal with Difficult People” seminars.

As one who believes that great clubhouse chemistry follows wins and not vice-versa, but wants desperately to climb back onto the Red Sox bandwagon, I’m torn.

One of the most important things a manager can do, I have long felt, is create an environment where the players can be focused and thrive. It is something John Farrell and his coaches did extremely well in 2013.

This year, he may have gotten a big assist from his GM.

They removed an obstruction, and are letting nature take its course.

Dave Rattigan is a former award-winning sports reporter and columnist who hosts View From the Lone Red Seat every Tuesday at 8 p.m., with Bob Lazzari and Chris Mascaro, on the Seamheads Podcasting Network.

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