The Red Sox misbehaved. Their starting pitchers have been escorted to the principal’s office, while the members of the offense got to take their recess.
Somehow, the hitters have gotten off the hook. And I don’t believe that’s very fair.
The arms and the bats have worked together to get this team in the perilous situation it is in.
Have the starting pitchers, notably Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz, fallen well short of their preseason expectations during the first half of the 2012 season? You bet. If you could augment only one area of this ball club as it is currently constituted, starting pitching would be the unanimous selection.
Pitching has been so consistently terrible throughout the course of the season that it has actually drawn attention away from the deficiencies of the offense. The first three weeks of the season, it was the bullpen taking the grenades. Alfredo Aceves and Co., have righted the ship, but the starters have not experienced the same success.
When one is asked about the failures of the 2012 squad, it is almost instinctual to immediately point towards the top of the starting pitching staff. The Red Sox have lacked consistency since the first toss towards home plate of the season was thrown in Detroit, but one theme for this team has remained the same–it is the pitching, not the hitting, that is to blame.
Beckett is an apathetic boat anchor on a staff that doesn’t need any help sinking. Buccholz cares more about vodka and partying than he does about the welfare of his team. Lester is fat.
These days, it seems as though whenever a starter not named Felix Doubront or Aaron Cook toes the rubber, fans, writers, and experts alike almost root, or at least expect, a poor performance. It has become trendy to hate the Red Sox, especially the three “aces”.
Whenever there is a scapegoat, there is a person or group of people tiptoeing away, looking over their shoulder, hoping that no one notices.
The point is not that the Red Sox lineup deserves the bear all, more, or even an equal share of the burden for the failures of the team as a whole. Instead, it is to highlight that its league-wide perception of being comprised of a group of hitters who consistently throw up crooked numbers against the opposition at will does not quite run parallel to the reality of the situation.
Let’s get a couple things out of the way now.
1) This is a lineup that has operated without two of its biggest offensive pieces for the majority of the season. Yes, it is true that Carl Crawford has yet to appear in a regular season game, and Jacoby Ellsbury has been sidelined since the home opener. Ellsbury’s absence has certainly taken a toll, especially when the Sox have faced right handed pitching. Crawford, on the other hand, is paid like a savior but is far from one. Evan Longoria, you’ll remember, has played in a grand total of 23 games for offensively bereft Rays. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a case that he is more vital to his team than any other player is to his respective squad in all of baseball. Have injuries negatively impacted this team? Of course. But don’t look to the DL for bailouts–the Red Sox have enough bullets in the chamber to spare a couple and still have enough to succeed.
2) The Red Sox offense, for all intents and purposes, has been good. Through 86 games, Sox hitters have produced 432 runs, good for second in Major League Baseball. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the Red Sox are stellar in blowouts and lackluster is close, grind-’em-out games. They’re excellent at winning the contests that lack pressure and relatively poor in the white-knuckle affairs.
Despite the Red Sox statistically robust offense, they often corner themselves into situations that require a clutch hit in order to score a run. In other words, Sox hitters, in spite of those classic 10-5 wins, tend to put themselves in favorable situations at the beginning of innings, only to fail to produce productive outs in key situations that ultimately lead to a plethora of stranded runners and missed opportunities.
Essentially, the Red Sox have a hard time hitting their foul shots.
Free and easy opportunities to score runs without getting a base hit do not often present themselves in close, well-pitched games. Let’s take a look at two recent, glaring examples that occurred in back-to-back innings in a game that should have been an easy win.
On July 3rd, while the East Coast was getting ready to celebrate its independence, the Red Sox were busy giving away a victory. In the top of the eighth inning, the Sox were clinging to a 2-1 lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:
Pedroia walk — Pedroia steal — Ortiz walk.
As a reminder, that is a runner on first and second with no one out, and Cody Ross due up. The best case scenario here is obviously a base hit by Ross. But here, expectations are not that high. It would be unfair to ask the powerful righty to lay down a bunt, and a ground ball to the right side could easily result in a double play. It is fair, however, to look for Ross, at the very least, to lift a semi-deep fly ball to right, right-center, or center field–all three of which would have resulted in Pedroia tagging up and getting to third base with less than two outs, a prime run-scoring position.
Instead, Ross failed to produce a productive out and struck out swinging. At this point, the Red Sox officially lost the opportunity to score a “free run”. They now needed a base hit to record any insurance in a tight ballgame.
Adrian Gonzalez came to the plate and drove a deep fly ball to center field, which is the exact result the Sox needeed one batter earlier. Pedroia tagged and went to third. First and third with two outs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia proceeded to strikeout looking to end what initially appeared to be an extremely promising inning.
Thanks to some nifty pitching in the bottom of the eighth by Vicente Padilla, the Red Sox headed to the top of ninth still gripping a one-run lead. Here is how the inning unfolded:
Here we go again. First and second, no one out–a situation where the Red Sox had the opportunity to score a run without a hitter getting a base hit. Nick Punto is headed towards the dish, the players on the field and the dozens of people at O.co Coliseum knew the bunt was coming. Punto squared and attempted the bunt, which was popped up and resulted in a double play for the Athletics. Kalish, for some strange reason, attempted to steal third and was promptly dispatched to end the inning.
Aceves went on to blow the save, as the Athletics came back to the tie and win the game in the bottom of the ninth. The loss went to Ace, but it really belonged to the Red Sox offense.
In close, well-pitched games, the margin for error is slim and opportunities are few and far between. Runs are often not doubled home or delivered by a round tripper. Instead, they are carved out by getting timely hits, earning walks, and selflessly finding ways to make productive outs.
The Red Sox have struggled against quality competition this season. According to the Boston Globe’s Tony Massarotti, they are 24-35 against American League teams who are at or above .500. The Red Sox are rarely able to match-up with the quality teams in their league. That is a fact. But it not just a pitching problem.
To pin the failures of this year’s Sox squad solely on the starting pitching staff is shortsighted, incorrect, and most of all, entirely too easy. It is the lazy fan’s excuse for why their team is perpetually treading water.
If the 2012 Boston Red Sox hope to succeed in the second half, it will be contingent upon their ability to find ways to beat quality teams. Improved starting pitching, combined with a more efficient offense will certainly increase their odds of nabbing a postseason berth.