For my money the stars of the 2013 Championship Season were Koji Uhehara, John Lackey, and Shane Victorino. If all three of them played in the same game they probably shortened it by thirty minutes with their no-nonsense, step-up-and-play-ball attitude. I love to watch them play.
Then we have Junichi Tazawa, Felix Dubront and Jonny Gomes with their stalling, fussing, fidgeting rituals that slow the game to a sputtering crawl. Their shenanigans between pitches resembled golf more than baseball, as they tried to break their opponents’ rhythm, spiking my interest at the same time.
Leaving aside the conferences on the mound (often called from the dugout), there are two ways for players to slow down a baseball game: fouling off pitches till the pitcher gives in and taking breaks between pitches. The first is an art that the Red Sox cultivate in their hitters, the second are stalling rituals adopted by both hitters and pitchers to summon their scattered resources.
The Red Sox are less interested in cultivating the deliberate approach to batting and pitching. Josh Beckett was given the bum’s rush out of town partially because he would not speed up his game on the mound. Look at the pitchers the Red Sox have acquired since then: Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uhehara. These veterans are masters of aggressive pitching and they look like they’re in charge even when they’re getting pelted (especially Dempster and Peavy).
Tazawa is the sole exception to this trend. He looks like he’s staving off an attack of gastritis as soon as he comes in. He adds drama and stomach acid to his performance by grimacing and walking around the mound until he finally decides to deliver–what will it be–ball one! He managed well in the post-season with this ritual, so it looks like more of the same in 2014.
At the plate Gomes and Pedroia are the worst offenders, adjusting their wristbands with every pitch a la Nomar Garcia-Parra, and Gomes has an intractable problem getting his helmet to sit comfortably on his head. Ortiz likes to spit on his batting gloves, but he gets back in the box with business-like intent. Nava likes to back out and re-group, but he gets down to business with the same intensity as Ortiz.
Jon Lester was a portrait of anxiety and frustration early in the season, but come August as his control sharpened, he worked faster and faster. By the World Series the hitters were starting to back out on him, so methodical was his delivery. When hitters uncharacteristically begin to stall at the plate you know your mojo is working.
Baseball is a slow game, so you might think the true masters are the slowest ones. But quite the contrary, the masters are the ones who make opponents try to slow them down, the John Lackeys, the Koji Uheharas, the Justin Verlanders. When those guys are pitching for your side, it’s a pleasure to watch. At the same time, the Shane Victorinos and the Mike Napolis, who step up and glare down a pitcher, give you that feeling that no nonsense is happening here. Their posture says, “Let’s get on with it!” We are here to play ball!
Why did Brandon Workman stick with the Red Sox through the World Series while his highly touted peers Allen Webster and Rubby DeLaRosa finished on the sidelines? I think the answer is simple; he threw strikes. Workman did not throw terribly hard like DeLaRosa, and he didn’t have the devastating curve that Webster flashed, but he had location. And what’s true in Real Estate is true in pitching.
What made John Lester a devastating pitcher in the fall, while he stumbled through the heart of the season? Location. What made John Lackey harder and harder to hit as he completed his rehab in early 2013? Location. Out of all the bullpen staff, why was Koji Uhehara the first nominee to replace the fallen Andrew Bailey? Location. If any one of these pitchers does not throw strikes, the Red Sox would not have gotten into the American League Championship Series.
I think this all changed when John Farrell returned to the Red Sox. Falling behind hitters became the cardinal offense. Pitchers could stay on the mound and get slapped around a little, but as soon as they let the count go to 3-1, they were living on borrowed time. For all his talent, Franklin Morales was through with the Red Sox when he couldn’t stay ahead of hitters in the World Series. Felix Dubront would be the same way, until Juan Nieves went out to the mound to remind him what his job was. To his credit, Dubront did not nibble around the corners as much in the World Series and proved his value in middle relief, as much as a starter.
From a fan’s point of view, it is a much more interesting game when pitchers throw strikes. The other eight fielders get into the act more, and the batters get less picky when they realize the pitcher is coming after them. And if a pitcher is not hitting his spots, he paces around the mound and plays with his cap and the rosin bag— like a batter between pitches. This is base-stall. We don’t enjoy it.
For all the promising hurlers featured at Fort Myers this spring, the word is “Throw strikes.” Watch Lackey and Lester and Uhehara and Workman. They do not come to fence or parry, they come to pitch. To them 2-2 is a hitter’s count. No one wants to go 3-2. So come in with it.
And you’ll be the next Brandon Workman .
This is belated praise for the architect of the 2013 Red Sox: Ben Cherrington. Perhaps he stood on Theo Epstein’s shoulders, but what he did in one off-season outshines any year under the Epstein regime.
Look at the box score of the final World Series game: who drove in the six runs? Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, all free-agent signings by Cherrington. Victorino was one of the most-criticized signings, but without him the Red Sox are probably not even American League Champions. He is the definition of a money player, and one who gives up his body to winning every game.
What about the signing of Koji Uhehara after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were already in the bullpen? Probably no way to predict what role he would have on the 2013 Red Sox, but maybe a hunch paid off. The word was that Uhehara had an expiration date and could not be counted on for regular bullpen duty. That was no deterrent to Cherrington.
Less dramatically the trade for Jake Peavy surely paid off at the end of the season, as Clay Bucholz never fully recovered and Ryan Dempster became increasingly unreliable. Cherrington sacrificed Jose Iglesias in a three-way trade to bring in Peavy. Then we watched the early-blooming Bogarts make us forget Iglesias. Iglesias will be a full-time gold glove winning shortstop some day, but he might never have gotten that chance on the Red Sox with Bogarts breathing down his neck.
I’m not sure what role Cherrington had in bringing Brandon Workman from Double-A ball to pitching the middle innings of the World Series, but it was shrewd choice. The Red Sox have always promoted young players very cautiously, perhaps allowing them to languish in the Minors. Ryan Lavarnway is in danger of dying on the vine. But Workman had the confidence and aggressiveness with batters that the Red Sox needed throughout the playoffs. That mindset promoted him past the Allen Websters and Rubby DeLaRosas, who could not pound the strike zone.
And of course, Cherrington brought back John Farrell, who managed this menagerie with consummate shrewdness and sensitivity.
Arguably the loss of any of these role players might have brought the Red Sox up short in their run for the World Championship, which suggests that Cherrington was prescient, the most important role player of all. Pretty amazing for one year’s work.
I’m looking forward to the Cherrington years.
Oh, by the way, Ben, could we make a good run at Jacoby Ellsbury?
The Red Sox have never hit like a good road team. They are very comfortable hitting the wall and the corners of Fenway Park, but they lose their confidence on the road. That would have been good enough in a rebuilding year, but now we think they are contenders.
Contenders do not always play from behind or wait for two strikes to start swinging. Contenders do not depend on big swings to produce runs. Contenders are not predictable.
At home the Sox score early and they take what the pitchers give them at the plate. On the road they wait and watch and take third strikes. There is no excuse for taking a third strike except for the occasional breaking ball that leaves you flat-footed. Facing the Royals the Sox kept holding back, hoping to get a free pass. Victorino even threw his body into a few pitches, a practice that will soon get him a reputation among umpires.
The hitters that are getting on base, Ellsbury, Gomes, Drew and Ortiz, are taking what they get and putting the ball in play somewhere. The hitters that are watching the strikes go by and then flailing, currently Pedroia, Napoli, Saltalamacchia and Nava, are always hitting behind in the count and then swinging from the heels. Pedroia, of course, always swings from the heels, but when he’s hitting well, he takes the ball to right field.
On the road the Sox don’t play much small ball. The days of powering their runs over the plate are gone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t score by bunting, stealing and moving the runner over. The double plays are killers, and the Sox should be playing to avoid them. The crazy running and sacrificing game the Astros modeled in Houston has its virtues, especially when the home team is not expecting it.
Which brings us to predictability. When the Sox are predictable, they lose. What is predictable about their game? Taking the first pitch, hitting into the defensive alignment, yanking the ball on the ground, pitching into high counts, never pitching out. These tendencies give their opponents an advantage, because they can defend them more easily.
The Beantown boys do all the right things at home, where they feel confident and expect to win. On the road they are much more predictable and defensive, both hitters and pitchers falling behind in the count. You can call it a slump, but contenders break slumps by aggressive and unpredictable play.
The players that demonstrate this kind of aggressive play are Koji Uhehara and Stephen Drew. (Yes, I am through maligning Stephen Drew).
Uhehara throws strikes and never pitches from behind. Of course he only has to do it for one inning, but that’s his job, and he does it with flair.
Drew is a fairly discriminating hitter, but he does not get behind in the count much. He is not waiting for a walk or the ideal pitch to hit. Earlier he was taking third strikes. Not anymore. He is putting the ball in play all the time, and he does it early in the count.
The Road is long and winding, and you have to navigate it with confidence, if you are a contender. Because the Red Sox are truly contenders, they should take the road aggressively and play with confidence, even though when they play on the other guy’s turf.
The moment when Jacoby Ellsbury crossed the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning on Saturday was the beginning of the new Red Sox under John Farrell. The Sox had just beaten the Tampa Bay Rays with the same combination of aggressive base-running and pitching that the Rays had used to dominate the Red Sox in recent years.
The Red Sox held the Rays to one run with a succession of strong pitchers from the new John Lester and revamped Andrew Bailey to the relentless pounding of the strike zone by Koji Uhehara. For the Red Sox of previous seasons extra innings had been like Russian Roulette, with each reliever coming out of the bullpen a possible bullet or an empty chamber. In 2013 the chambers are mostly empty.
The Red Sox scored on a single, a stolen base, an advance on an overthrow and an infield hit. How many times had the Rays used that formula to beat them? The Rays have always been the fundamentally sound team that pushes their opponents into mistakes. That formula has worked consistently against the Red Sox since 2008.
Another way the Rays could beat you was getting run production out of role players with .200 batting averages. On Saturday the Red Sox plated their other run with a home run from their back-up catcher, David Ross. That catcher, if he never hits another home run, will earn his keep throwing out base runners.
Fabric is the key to the new Red Sox. Defensive fabric and offensive fabrication. The beauty of this style of game is that it can produce a victory on any given day, not just the day Will Middlebrooks hits three home runs. The Sox could always win with power. Now they are winning with fabric.