As the Red Sox have fallen into a deeper slump than most of us ever imagined possible, the “Chicken Little” mentality that was once prevalent throughout Red Sox Nation has slowly transformed into the “Mob” mentality. Yes, that’s right folks. People throughout New England have their pitchforks and torches lined up and ready to go should the once seemingly invincible Red Sox fully collapse and miss the playoffs. When and if it does happen, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports will likely be unfairly marked as the man leading the charge.
On Monday morning, he released what some have described as a “scathing” article on the state of the Red Sox. Though I’ll admit initially seeing the piece in an unfavorable light at first, it’s neither as damning nor outrageous as many have made it out to be. While I disagreed with many points of his article, I feel as if I should give Passan some credit. To date, he’s one of the few baseball writers who’s steered away from the tired, lazy, and baseless “Red Sox lack heart and motivation” meme. In fact, he even took a moment during his latest piece to address this common misconception.
“What’s different isn’t a matter of heart or will or desire or want-to or any of the things that play so well on Boston talk radio. The Red Sox are choking because they are being outplayed, just like they were outplayed when they started the season 2-10 and sent the city into a panic, and they are being outplayed because that happens to even the best teams. It’s not a single, drastic failure as much as it is a compendium of little failures snowballing into an Indiana Jones-sized boulder of destruction.”
As someone who abhors formulaic non-sequitur arguments, I openly applaud Passan for portraying the basic reason for their struggles in a rational manner. He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Just like at the beginning of the season, the Red Sox are being outplayed right now. There are a lot of reasons for their September slump, the most prevalent being injuries; but we shouldn’t look at the last 20 games and draw erroneous conclusions.
Like most good writers, Passan went looking for answers. While he found a few credible reasons, he fell flat on several others; thus weighing down whatever good he might have done with the piece. At times, it almost seemed as if he was stretching to find enough reasons to create a top ten list; as if a top seven list wasn’t good enough. For example, Theo Epstein was named as reason number one and number ten for why the Red Sox were struggling. Secondly, Kyle Weiland’s pitching performances were discussed in detail in both number one and number nine. These instances, in particular, made the article seem repetitive and overreaching
Chief among my (constructive) criticisms were his views on Epstein’s role in this whole debacle.
“Theo Epstein is facing criticism – all of it justified – for leaving his franchise shorthanded in the throes of a playoff race.
It is very simple: No team with the ability to spend $170 million on its payroll should be starting Kyle Weiland in September. Period. Weiland is the rookie starting the first game Monday againstBaltimore. He has allowed 34 baserunners in 19 innings while striking out six. He may be good someday. He may see the criticism descending on him now and throw a gem. Just like good teams can lose, bad pitchers can win.
Weiland simply represents a systematic failure in what to this point has been a peerlessly managed team. Epstein has run the Red Sox with efficiency and intelligence during his nine seasons as general manager. Which makes this all the more distressing for diehards and pink-hats alike.”
On the surface, it’s hard to find fault with Passan’s logic. After all, Epstein was the architect of the team, so it stands to reason he deserves much of the blame. This is especially true if you look at baseball on the macro level as opposed to the micro level. Epstein was armed with a $170M payroll at his disposal, and now Tim Wakefield, Kyle Weiland, and Andrew Miller are receiving regular turns in the starting rotation in September. These kinds of things should never happen, right?
Well, yeah, except they do happen.
As Passan admits later in the article that injuries happen to every team. This season, they’ve hit the Red Sox hard; especially when it comes to the starting rotation. In fact, he even goes out of his way to admit injuries have ravaged a potentially deep rotation. Here’s how he lists the depth chart.
Sounds pretty solid, right? While the last two pitchers on the list have been incredibly frustrating to watch over the past couple of years; as 5th and 6th starters, they’re pretty freaking amazing. For the sake of completeness, let’s flesh the depth chart out a little more:
On most teams, Wakefield would have easily cracked the starting rotation, lining up in the fourth of fifth slots. (Maybe even third on a handful of teams.) On the Red Sox, he comes in at number seven among pitchers on the roster (in our theoretically healthy rotation). Aceves has the potential to be a solid back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, and very well may get a shot next season to take the spot vacated by the injured Matsuzaka. Like Wakefield, he’d probably crack most teams rotations. After that, it’s Miller, Weiland, and Doubront; all of whom are replacement level starting pitchers worthy of receiving a spot start or two provided the situation is appropriate.
The point I’m trying to make is that due to injuries, the Red Sox have been forced to give 43 starts (or 26.5% of all starts this season) to the number 7-10 guys on their starting rotation depth chart.* In comparison, let’s look at the American League playoff contenders. The Yankees have been forced to go beyond their number six starter two times; the Rangers five times; the Angels six times; the Tigers eight times; and the Rays 13 times. How have the National League contenders fared in the same situation? The Brewers have been forced to go beyond their sixth starter zero times; the Giants five times; the Braves eight times; the Phillies 14 times; the Diamondbacks 20 times; and the Cardinals 21 times (including Wainwright as the ace). While I’ll fully admit the levels of talent within each rotation varies, there’s no denying the Red Sox have been forced to go to the well far more often than any other contender. All things considered, the sheer fact they’re 88-66 and leading the Rays in the Wild Card by 2 games should be considered a massive achievement. Most teams, including several of the above named contenders, would have folded under the same circumstances.
Furthermore, during a 5-15 September stretch where most teams are exhausted and banged up as it is, the Red Sox have been forced to rely on their depth to start eight of their 20 games (or 40%) this month. Of course, that doesn’t even include the four starts in which the struggling Lackey has appeared. While I’m in no way excusing Lackey’s performance (even if everyone had been healthy, he’d still be in the rotation), it goes a long way toward explaining the precarious situation the Red Sox have found themselves in. Other than the Braves whom are also struggling this month, no other contender has been forced to rely on anyone other than their top six starters in September.
Switching gears for a moment, could the Red Sox have added more depth? Passan asserts they already had additional rotation depth in Kevin Millwood. Rather than give him a look in the majors, they chose to release him.
“It’s easy to second-guess Epstein when Kevin Millwood, who left the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate to sign with the Colorado Rockies the day Boston’s phenomenal stretch ended, has thrown well for a non-contender. Millwood wanted to pitch in the major leagues; Epstein never afforded him that opportunity.
Millwood’s stuff, according to scouts who saw him, wasn’t anything special, and between that and the Erik Bedard trade seeming to fortify Boston’s rotation, the Millwood snub seemed understandable. Now it looks shortsighted, especially with the eminently optionable Randy Williams on the roster at the time.”
Given the reasonably decent health of the Red Sox rotation on the day Millwood was released, it seemed like the right move to make at the time. While I can understand why one might think a healthy and available Millwood could help the Red Sox, his 4.66 FIP in 47-1/3 innings for the Rockies screams otherwise. Had he pitched for Boston over that stretch, it’s probably safe to assume his FIP would have registered above 5.00 once you factor in not only the designated hitter, but also being in a division that contains three of the top 15 teams in baseball (Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays). In reality, he’s just another replacement level arm. The only difference separating Millwood from Miller and Weiland is experience. Unfortunately, the difference in experience would have had a negligible affect on the Red Sox over the past three weeks.
Could the Red Sox have added rotation depth elsewhere? Possibly, but it’s been well documented that the front office made serious, aggressive attempts to add starting pitching at the July 31st trading deadline. Bedard’s presence on the roster is proof of that fact. Still, the Red Sox worked hard to try to bring in other pitchers to bolster the rotation. According to multiple sources, they had cut a deal to acquire Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers, only to have it fall apart when he invoked his no-trade clause. The Red Sox had a deal finalized with the A’s for the fireballing Rich Harden, only to have to back away due to unfavorable medical reports. Explicit overtures were made toward the Rockies about acquiring staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez. When the asking price proved to be cost prohibitive, he was moved to the Indians instead.* The Sox had also taken a look at former Seattle RHP Doug Fister, but decided he wasn’t worth Seattle’s asking price. While he’s pitched very well since being acquired by the Tigers, there are indications he’s pitching over his head at this point. That is, unless you think he’s really a 3.11 FIP true talent pitcher, which I do not. (Especially considering his 86% contact rate.) At the time, it seemed like the right move; this is true even when you consider the Tigers gave up relatively little to acquire him.
*Considering his 4.12 FIP, it was probably for the best in the short-term.
In closing, placing full blame Theo for the state of the rotation is not only unfair, but also facile in nature. (Still, he’s not without fault.) No one, not even one of the game’s premier General Managers, could have predicted the number of injuries the Red Sox rotation would incur this season; especially in September. Even still, he put together enough starting pitching depth to go 11 or 12 deep for much of the season. How many teams can boast that kind of depth? Two? Three? The only reason it’s been a problem is because they’ve been forced to use their depth so frequently. This isn’t anyone’s fault per se. Sometimes teams hit a streak of bad luck. In the case of the Red Sox rotation, their luck has gone stone cold at the worst possible time.