Monday, October 5, 2015

Sox Season Recap

Boston faded fast after its strong start (Boston Globe)
With yesterday's 3-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians, the Red Sox rollercoaster ride is over. Though they finished last again, they only lost six more games than they won and were one of the best teams in baseball for roughly half the season.

Of course, that's half a season less than what was expected from them this year. Following an active offseason in which they added a pair of high-impact bats and remade their starting rotation, the Red Sox were pronounced favorites to win the American League. For the first month or so they looked the part, with newcomer (who was really an oldcomerHanley Ramirez anchoring the offense, Mookie Betts becoming a human highlight reel, and a healthy Dustin Pedroia playing his best baseball in years.

But as the calendar flipped to May, it became evident that Boston's biggest weakness entering the season--starting pitching--was not up to snuff. Despite outscoring every team save the Blue Jays through April 29th, the Sox still finished April with a negative run differential. The blame fell on pitching coach Juan Nieves, who lost his job barely a month into the season. It was around the same time that Ryan Hanigan, the team's backup catcher-turned starter after Christian Vazquez underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery, went down with a fractured right hand. The Sox were forced to promote rookie backstop Blake Swihart much sooner than anticipated, and sure enough the 23 year-old struggled. With a raw receiver and new pitching coach, Boston's cobbled-together rotation fell into disarray.

Or at least that's what the Red Sox will have you believe, pointing to Hanigan's injury as the primary reason for the team's summer swoon. In reality, Boston's pitching improved drastically in May and June, trimming a full run off its April ERA. It wasn't until the weather warmed and injuries cropped up that the staff hit the skids in July and August.

The problem, then, was Boston's hitting, which completely disappeared in May. After averaging 5.14 runs per game in April, the Sox managed a meager 2.83 in May. As a result they lost a bunch of close games--nine of their 19 losses in May were by two runs or less--games that could have been won with timely hitting. Incredibly, it took what was supposed to be the best offense in baseball more than two months to score in double digits, and of course when they did they still lost anyways.

And so the Red Sox, a first-place team for much of April, found themselves in last place at the start of June. That's where they stayed for the rest of the year, briefly climbing into third place during the season's final week before returning to the AL East basement. That's also when frustration began to boil over, as Wade Miley and John Farrell got into a dugout shouting match (which, take note Nationals, did not escalate into choking), several players were ejected for arguing with umpires, and Pablo Sandoval rode the bench for perusing Instagram during a mid-game bathroom break.

A seven-game losing streak in mid-June proved to be a major setback, one from which Boston spent the next month recovering. The Sox caught fire leading into the All-Star Break, closing to within five games of first and positioning themselves for a second-half run, especially if Ben Cherington could fetch Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline.

The Red Sox were unable to maintain that momentum following the Midsummer Classic, however, as the death knell sounded for them in late July once again. This time it was an eight-game losing streak that did them in, dropping them a dozen games below .500 and the same number out of first. They thus found themselves in the awkward position of being sellers at the deadline with nothing to sell, and so July 31st came and went without much excitement.
Boston's strong finish offers hope for 2016 (929 The Ticket)
But Boston being Boston, the Red Sox didn't stay dormant for long. August was the most tumultuous month of the season, beginning with Larry Lucchino's announcement that he was stepping down as team president and CEO. That was followed in short order by John Farrell's stunning cancer diagnosis, which was soon overshadowed by the news that Dave Dombrowski had been hired as president of baseball operations and that Ben Cherington, general manager of four years, resigned after 16 years in the organization.

The most cruel blow to Red Sox fans, at least, was the departure of beloved NESN play-by-play man Don Orsillo, whose contract was not renewed for a 16th season with the team. Orsillo had not become a worse announcer, but the team he called games for was getting worse by the day. NESN wanted to re-engergize the broadcasts, and since they can't fix the Red Sox they figured it was time for some fresh blood up in the booth. Dave O'Brien--Orsillo's replacement--is great, but he'll never be Don (though Dave and Jerry does have a nice ring to it).

Lost amidst all the controversy off the field was that on the field, the Red Sox were turning their season around. All of the sudden everyone was hitting, even Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the pitching had finally settled down. Boston quietly enjoyed its best month of the season in August, only to play even better in September, which concluded with a season-high six-game win streak. From July 29th on Boston was the fourth-best team in the American League, winning nearly 60 percent of its games.

So for three months out of the year, the Red Sox were the team everyone expected them to be. During the three months in between, however, they were 13 games below .500. It was an incredibly frustrating and disappointing season to be sure, but there were lots of positive signs, especially over those final two months. Rather than play out the string, the Sox played their best baseball of the year.

If nothing else, Boston's strong finish proved Dombrowski has a strong foundation for his 2016 club in place. He has young, exceptional talent up the middle in Swihart, Pedroia, Betts/Btadley, and Xander Bogaerts. Young guns Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez should be mainstays in the rotation for years to come, Joe Kelly pitched much better after being demoted to Pawtucket, and Rick Porcello's second half  (3.58 ERA after Independence Day) suggests he may live up to his fat contract after all. David Ortiz remained one of the best hitters in the game at 39, and whatever negative regression he endures next year will likely be offset by positive regression from Ramirez and Sandoval--two of the worst everyday players this year. Farrell and loyal bench coach Torey Lovullo will return, providing continuity in the dugout.

That's a good start, but expect another busy winter for Boston. The Sox need to overhaul their bullpen and desperately need more starting pitching, particularly the ace that has eluded them since they traded Jon Lester two summers ago (hello, David Price?). They also have to find a new left fielder with Ramirez moving to first base, although Travis Shaw deserves an extended look after his Will Middlebrooks-esque debut. They still have to figure out what on earth they want to do with Rusney Castillo as well as their surplus of catchers. If Bradley's batting woes return next year and Betts moves back to center, they'll need a right fielder, too.

After going worst-to-first in 2013, the Red Sox were unable to repeat the trick in 2015. With another aggressive offseason and the right pieces to complement their nucleus, perhaps they will in 2016.

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