Sunday, September 17, 2006

Needing the Phoenix, Don't give the Sox the Bird

Has the Nation gone soft? Have our collective weakness atrophied that limbic enmity reserved for the Bronx Bombers? Is the theory that depression arises from anger turned inward become reality? The four game 'Armageddon' against the Yankees has become the equivalent of spring training, not even worthy of traditional 'salary drive' play.

The reality show called "MLB" has kicked the Red Sox off the island. Maybe they swallowed too much sea water, or sprained their collective ankles, or just didn't want it enough. Partitioning the blame hasn't become the sport du jour, as, mercifully, it's football season.

What went wrong? Maybe the season was doomed from the start, doomed by overconfidence in a "geriatric" pitching staff, overreliance on promising but inexperienced youth, and offensive holes that revealed themselves in a discouragingly narrow 'Pythagorean' equation, manifested as an inadequate run differential. Huh? The Red Sox won more than their share of close games, saved by Jonathan Papelbon, but often lost games that weren't close because the pitching simply wasn't good enough.

Three major events intersected to doom the 2006 Red Sox. The injury to Jason Varitek, exposing the soft underbelly of the staff, the loss of Tim Wakefield, who provides stability and innings on a regular basis, and a general offensive drop off.

Some blame the 'Sabremetricians', the 'Moneyball' crowd. Pre All-Star break, the Sox had an OPS of .823 and 486 runs scored, both 3rd in the AL. Post All-Star break, the Sox are 12th in OPS at .742 and 9th in runs scored (276) in 62 games, about 4.4 runs per game.

Pre All-Star break, the pitchers compiled a 4.52 ERA (8th), a 1.36 WHIP (6th), and a K/BB ratio of 2.26 (3rd). The latter predicted MORE successful second half results. Post break, the K/BB is 1.92 (9th), ERA 5.21 (11th), and WHIP 1.57 (12th). The aggregate pitching and offensive results easily explain how the Sox moved from the penthouse to the outhouse, amongst the Royals, Orioles, and D-Rays in AL futility.

In summary, no mystery exists concerning the Sox collapse. The collective personnel changes and performance, statistically or observationally, brought the Sox from contenders to pretenders. Affixing the responsibility of not making 'deadline deals' borders on the absurd, as the Sox lived not on the edge of contention but on the fringe of despair. Throwing good money after bad would have accomplished nothing short of appeasement of the unrealistic.

The Sox need to get younger and better in the pitching staff (perhaps Papelbon and Beckett, if both can maintain or regain health will help), and stabilize the lineup with quality leadoff hitting, and more production from the 5-6 spots in the lineup. The Sox cannot rely on an injured and declining Trot Nixon, a fatiguing Mike Lowell, and have to wonder what Jason Varitek's future offensive production will be. The upper minors do not appear to be overladen with position players who are on the cusp of stardom, and the lower minors' pitching depth presumably will require a couple of years of seasoning.

Theo Epstein and ownership face a tall order this off-season, as the 'transition year' became a 'disaster year' as the Sox slipped into the bottom quartile, yes bottom fourth of major league teams. Talent discrepancy, not effort, becomes the focus. Ownership's focus must be to restore the talent level to compete with other franchises on the rise.

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