The Collapse of the 2011 Red Sox, the Limits of Moneyball, and Where We Go from Here

Let’s begin by stating what should be well understood by now. The Red Sox did not collapse in September because of issues about Terry Francona’s pain pills, or because of Popeyegate. This season was always more dicey than any of us wanted to believe. That was made clear in the first, dismal month, when they went 11-15 (2-10 in the first two weeks). This speaks to a malaise that goes beyond injuries and streaks. But more of this later.

After that, they recovered somewhat, but were still in trouble. Daisuke Matsuzaka turned up lame during spring training, and was out for the season. John Lackey was just no sharp, and as the other pitchers improved, he did not, ultimately finishing the year with the worst ERA of his professional career: 6.41. In essence, by June the Red Sox had just 3 regularly effective starters.

They were the best team in baseball during the middle of the season, from June through early August because the pitching of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz kept them in games, and the hitting was on fire. Tim Wakefield was a workhorse during this period, making up for both the missing Dice-K and the miserable Lackey.

It all started to come apart when we learned that Clay Buchholz had a stress fracture in his lower back and was most likely out for the season. Now down to two effective starters, Terry turned to recently acquired Erik Bedard (still recovering from an injury of his own) and Andrew Miller, and looking to reliever Alfredo Aceves for a few starts. He even tried a minor leaguer Kyle Weiland in the starting spot. Meanwhile, Tim Wakefield, age 44, seemed to be showing the cumulative impact of all those starts. As a result of all these things, the losses started to mount.

As the Sox slid, many of the position players seemed to react by going into funks of their own. A few rose to the occasion, most notably Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, coming on strong even as the season came crashing down. Highly touted Carl Crawford never seemed to find his groove, and Adrian Gonzalez, while improved in the field, seemed incapable of finding the clutch hit. It seemed to reflect a reality of organizational dynamics: when a crisis arises, some people get depressed and keep their heads down, some try too hard and make mistakes, and a choice few actually make a superlative effort.

After the season, we learned that Lackey, Lester, and Beckett were eating fried chicken (from Popeye’s) and drinking beer in the clubhouse during the late innings of games in which they were not playing, which became emblematic of a poisoned locker room attitude among the Sox, whether real or imagined, that fans felt was holding the team down. To be clear, given the pitching situation, even if everyone had given their all, this team was not going to the World Series in 2011. No way. But having said that, they did not go out in glory.

As we all expected and now know, there followed a mass purge. Terry Francona was permitted to depart (he was fired, really), and Theo Epstein went to the Cubs. The medical and training staff, blamed for the frequency of injury, was also purged. Finally, as if to appeal to the fans to restore their enthusiasm, Bobby Valentine was hired as the new manager.

If Valentine is to be successful, he must address a core issue, one that goes beyond the club’s pitching woes. It goes to attitude, which is a factor that Moneyball fails to take into account. The Red Sox are a mix of new players eager to prove themselves, young stars playing for a bigger paycheck, and veterans who don’t feel they have anything to prove. In 2011, these groups failed to coalesce, and so the players were, I believe, playing mainly for themselves, with a few exceptions. Teams win championships when the players are in it not just for a paycheck, or even for the fans, but for each other. Players who are there for each other don’t sit in the clubhouse drinking beer and eating fried chicken during a game. They don’t worry about their stats. They pull for each other. They play for each other. When they do that, they play to win.

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Filed under Boston Red Sox, Major League Baseball, mlb, Red Sox

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