Since 1918, three teams in the history of the Boston Red Sox have started a season 53-34. The other two missed the playoffs in spectacular fashion. The third had six players in the All-Star dugout last night.
It’s a superficial comparison — the 1978 club was even better at this point, the 2004 club much worse — but it’s not the first time this season the 2007 Red Sox have been looked at in the light of the team’s most memorable flameouts since the turn of the new century.
As we sit at the All-Star break, it’s eerie in some aspects how similar these Sox are to their two brethren — the 2002 meltdown club that had two 20-game winners but couldn’t buy a win in close games, and the 2006 atrocity that rolled all the way until every single wheel came off in the last two months.
Somehow, the 2002 Red Sox did not make the playoffs. On July 12, they were two games behind the Yankees. After that, they finished 40-35 despite having roughly the same run differential as the Bombers, who went 47-25 in that same span. Pythagoras says the 2002 club should have won 100 games. They won 93. Two pitchers won 20 games, but the team only mustered a 13-23 record in one-run contests. They fielded seven All-Stars, including three pitchers, but were out of the race by early September.
The club was in first place at the end of June, with a 36-15 record. They proceeded to go 39-43 from June through August before a slight rebound. What happened? Manny Ramirez broke his finger in May and missed a quarter of the season; Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra, rebounding from injuries the year before, didn’t produce to their expected levels; Trot Nixon began his inexorable decline; No. 3 starter John Burkett collapsed after the All-Star break — and through it all Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez began discussing publicly their displeasure with the unfinished nature of their contract negotiations.
More statistically, Tony Clark received 275 at bats with an OPS+ of 50, Rey Sanchez received most of the starts at second with an OPS+ of 78, and Frank Castillo received 23 starts (5.07 ERA) before losing his starting job to Tim Wakefield, and the Sox gave another 29 starts to a combination of Rolando Arrojo, Casey Fossum and Darren Oliver. And when Manny Ramirez wasn’t DH-ing, Carlos Baerga was sucking oxygen from the stadium.
The team was putting it together in May, then faded from June on, as a weak back half of the rotation and underperformance/incompetence from five of the lineup’s nine members sank the club. Also, the 2002 Red Sox were terrible in the clutch — underperforming their averages in late and close situations, tie games and one-run games. Can the horrible clutch numbers be blamed on bad luck? That’s usually as good an explanation as any — but could any lineup with Clark, Baerga and Sanchez in it (never mind Shea Hillenbrand and his .330 OBP, Varitek and his .332 and Nixon and his .338) be expected to drive in runs consistently?
In 2006, the Sox similarly soared to an incredible first-half run — 53-33, and up three games on the Yankees, narrowly missing a sweep of defending champion Chicago in a 19-inning loss (you remember that one, I’m sure) heading into the break. Unlike the 2002 and 2007 clubs, this team loved June, going 17-9 before dropping to 15-12 in July and 23-35 thereafter.
We all know what happened. Varitek, Nixon and Coco Crisp suffered injuries that debilitated the lineup and exposed the weaknesses of a terrible bench, and when the starters returned they could not hit. Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez, who actually stayed healthy, hit well below league average, leaving David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez to carry the bulk of the lineup — until Ramirez too went down and Ortiz was sidelined with chest pains. Second-half slumps from overworked Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell added to the woes. In the first half, the Sox as a team batted .283/.366/.457. In the second: .252/.332/.409.
The pitching also was a disaster. Expected ace Josh Beckett was inconsistent; Tim Wakefield went down with an injury and struggled upon his return; rookie callup Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer; Matt Clement’s season ended after five miserable starts when exploratory surgery discovered an Italian dinner where should have been a shoulder; and 25 starts were apportioned to Kyle Snyder, Jason Johnson, Lenny DiNardo and David Pauley, who combined for a 5-13 record with none sporting an ERA below 6.02. In the second half, the Sox’ team ERA was 5.16, a full two-thirds of a run higher than the major-league average.
In 2006, the Sox simply had no bench and no pitching depth to withstand the barrage of injuries, which turned tragicomic when Lester and Ortiz feared for their lives, and the Sox shut Jonathan Papelbon down in September.
With the 2007 version of the Red Sox experiencing some alarming signs of malaise over the past five weeks or so, a look at the similarities and differences between those two disasters and the current season could give us some clues into how the second half might turn out.
First, the 2007 Red Sox have been one of the most exhilerating and frustrating teams I have ever seen. For nearly two months, they crushed all manner of competition — pitching well, hitting well, and ultimately dominating the AL East. Since then, they have played no better than a .500 team, held up entirely by their elite rotation and impressive bullpen. The offense has sputtered, particularly in the clutch.
In that non-clutch aspect, the Sox of late resemble the ill-fated 2002 team and their woeful record in one-run games. After going 8-3 in one-run games in April and May, the Sox have gone 6-9 since. Such things tend to even out, and the Sox are indeed nearly even, at 14-12 overall. The statistics mostly don’t bear out what our eyes have told us about their supposed ineptitude in key spots, though — the Red Sox are fourth among all 30 teams in slugging with runners in scoring position and two out, sixth with runners in scoring position regardless of out, and ninth with runners on base. With the bases loaded, however, the Sox have been downright pedestrian: 15th in slugging and 16th in OPS — particularly unfortunate because no one in baseball has had more bases loaded at bats than Sox hitters.
Clutch numbers tend to fluctuate over time, but as we saw in 2002, they can stick for a whole season — particularly when you have the glaring holes the Sox did at the time with players such as Clark and Sanchez. The weakness of hitters such as Loretta, Gonzalez and Crisp in 2006 was also a contributor to that season’s failures. Are Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew those players this season? Considering if you drop Drew’s horrendous May, he’s hitting well above average (.294/.392/.550), it’s safe to say he will not be a black hole in the second half. Lugo — well, for what it’s worth, he’s batting .333/.429/.556 over six games (18 at bats) since his 0-for-33. Clearly, the Red Sox need a return to form from Ortiz and especially Ramirez to present a truly formidable lineup. It’s hard to count against that happening, frankly.
The pitching on the surface also resembles the 2002 club’s staff. The Sox have a pair of aces with Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Both are on pace for close to or more than 20 wins. Past them, there are some problems — or at least some concerns, which is why Mark Buehrle looked so attractive. Curt Schilling’s injury has hurt far less than one could reasonably expect — Kason Gabbard has been just as serviceable as Schilling was before his injury, and Julian Tavarez is one of the better fifth starters in the game. Still, that means Tim Wakefield is the team’s No. 3 starter, with no demonstrable idea what kind of performance he, Gabbard or Tavarez will contribute on any given day.
Such a situation seems primed for a repeat of 2002 — when Martinez and Derek Lowe were dominant, and no one else came close. Schilling may well return healthy and at least to a 2006 level of performance, which would make the top three one of the best — if not the best, depending on Matsuzaka’s continued adjustments — in baseball as we head toward October. Counting on that seems foolhardy, as does counting on Tavarez and Gabbard to pitch well enough to maintain the above-.500 records they currently have/deserve. Even during the recent slump, the Sox’ pitching has kept the ship afloat — a far cry from the situation last season. In fact, the Sox posted a lower ERA in June than in May, despite winning seven fewer games. Can that continue with the current group of pitchers? Anything’s possible, but it’s not something I’d gamble with, if I were Theo Epstein.
On the other hand this season, Devern Hansack, Jon Lester and David Pauley all could make starts if needed, a luxury the ’02 club appeared not to have, considering the ages of most of its pitchers. Newly promoted Clay Buchholz is waiting in the wings, clearly more ready than any of us thought at the beginning of the season. There is depth there, should Schilling be unable to return to form or should Tavarez or Gabbard (hopefully not both) need to be removed from the rotation. Even so, forcing young kids into the role of stabilizing a potential playoff rotation is not in any way ideal. Without delving into the bullpen — which was solid in 2002 and is agan this season, thanks to Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and the Brendan Donnelly-Manny Delcarmen combo — starting pitching seems to be both the Sox’ greatest potential strength moving forward and their greatest potential weakness.
It’s difficult to predict a team on pace for 100 wins at the halfway point will miss the playoffs. (Perhaps that’s because of the 12 other Sox teams to have won at least 53 of their first 87 games, seven went to the postseason, and four won the World Series. The pessimists can look up 1939, 1978 and 1979, the three Sox clubs to miss the playoffs with even better opening records than this). Nevertheless, it’s happened to the Sox twice in five years.
One major difference is the disaster that has become the New York Yankees this year. Nevertheless, a large lead is a luxury easily lost. While it allows players more freedom to break out of slumps (Lugo and Drew) and experiment with pitches (Papelbon) without fear of jeopardizing a pennant race, it should not be a reason for complacency — .500 baseball for five weeks is still .500 ball, and it should still be disconcerting, regardless of how the Yankees are doing.
I personally fear a repeat of the sudden 2006 collapse far more than a repeat of the 2002 club’s slow rumble to oblivion — in part because if the Sox exactly match that team’s 40-35 record in the second half, and the Yankees go 50-27, Boston will still win the division by a game. A collapse like last year’s, however, will destoy any division lead.
It would behoove the Red Sox to pay attention to the lessons of those seasons, particularly as they relate to the need for pitching depth, regardless of how big the division lead is.