Collapse Marks New Low for Boston Red Sox Franchise

Scenes of dejection from Wednesday's 4-3 loss reflect the gravity of Boston's collapse (Semansky/ AP, Fiume/ Getty)

Without context, a 90-win season seems impressive.  Without context, leading the majors in multiple offensive categories is exactly the type of thing that fans hope for.  But when looking at the big picture, there’s nothing positive to say about what the Boston Red Sox just did.

And that’s a key distinction.  They did this.  Missing the playoffs with arguably the worst choke job in MLB history is the team’s fault.  Don’t blame the Yankees.  Don’t curse the Rays.  This is all on the Sox.  The flameout didn’t “happen to them”.  This was an act of commission in which the players, coaches, and front office were all participants.

The mainstream Boston media will have a field day for the next month or so, calling for blood and firings and drastic shakeups.  However, we should all put that to rest right now.

Theo Epstein will not and should not be fired.  Same for Terry Francona.  Ditto for pitching coach Curt Young.  Though each shares in the blame for this embarrassment, most of the responsibility falls on the players themselves.

There’s very little (if anything) to be gained by adding to the abuse that will be heaped upon the team in the coming weeks, (though admittedly, a little bit of complaining is impossible to avoid).  Instead, the focus should be on why and how this happened and how to avoid it in the future.  Because, let’s face it- it was a historically bad collapse and quite possibly the single darkest moment for a celebrated franchise.

The best way to put Boston’s putrid September into context is to read Nate Silver’s article.  Silver can always be counted on to describe events in an appropriate light, with a focus on the statistical likelihoods of certain outcomes.  And, as he points out, in less than a month, Boston went from having a 0.3% chance of missing the playoffs to going home.

It’s astounding.

Some key numbers, per Silver:

  • The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.
  • The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
  • The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
  • The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

How did the team arrive at the ignominious moment?  In a word, pitching.  Or rather lack thereof.  And it all starts with John Lackey.

With an ERA of nearly six and a half, Lackey crippled the Red Sox this year.  Their 90 wins ought to have been 95 or even more; even with the runs they actually allowed, their Pythagorean win/loss is 93-69.  But take away Lackey’s propensity to help opponents cross home plate and Boston would have easily eclipsed the 95 mark.

Having Erik Bedard be the only real mid-season adjustment only compounded the problem.  After Clay Buchholz was lost to injury, the team simply didn’t do enough enough to keep itself in a position to win, though at the time there appeared to be no danger whatsoever.

The lack of pitching depth put obvious strain on Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and on what rapidly became an overtaxed bullpen.  Daniel Bard’s season is one to forget, not for his overall numbers (which are good enough) but for the myriad moments in which he completely and utterly imploded.  It was uncharacteristic to watch him struggle.  Papelbon suffered similar problems, though less frequently.  And the duo rarely had any real support in the ‘pen.

When talking baseball, many fans and commentators and analysts have a tendency to overestimate the importance of “intangibles”, using terms like heart/ grit/ hustle/ determination.  In most cases, this is largely bunk; performance can be quantified in very concrete ways, and questioning or lauding players’ motivation to win is usually out of place.

However, there are exceptions.  There are times in which a lack of heart does seem to play a pivotal role.

This Red Sox team was filled with veterans.  Filled with elite players who had led the club to plenty of past victories.  As September wound down to its disgusting conclusion, it was their duty to step up and stop this slide.  There were far too many games, far too many losses that just felt flat and lifeless.

It’s cruel to suggest that the players didn’t care.  But from a fan’s perspective, it’s also undeniable that, at times, it felt like they didn’t care enough.

On paper, the overall offensive number belie the true nature of this final month.  In their last 27 games, the team averaged 5.4 runs scored per game, which sounds like plenty.  And would have been, had the Sox scored consistently.  But of their 146 runs, 72 came in just five games.  Nearly half of their production in fewer than 20% of their September contests.  In the remaining 22 games the team averaged 3.4 runs, and that is not a number that will get the job done.

Not with the lack of pitching that the club endured.

So blame the rotation.  Blame the bullpen.  But understand that the responsibility for this fiasco must be shared and shared alike.  And know that it will be a very long time before the Sox will be able to put this stunning collapse behind them.