Sports

MLB Analysis: Baseball is Better When the Boston Red Sox are Good

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On July 2nd, the Boston Red Sox came to Oakland for a three-game set. Before the series started, I had the usual “Uh, oh. Boston’s coming to town” trepidation I’ve had for several years. After all, over the last 10 years the Red Sox have been a consistently dominant team.

From 2002 through 2011, they won 90 or more games eight times, made the playoffs six times, and won the World Series twice. Red Sox fans, for decades as miserable as Chicago Cubs fans, had more than their share to cheer about for the better part of ten years. As good as Boston’s been, it turns out my trepidation was misplaced. The A’s swept the Red Sox. Meanwhile, by hitting a 10th inning walk-off single for the White Sox, Kevin Youkilis celebrated Independence Day.

For Boston, the good news coming out of the series was that David Ortiz hit his 400th home run. Whatever pressure he was feeling as he sat at number 399 is gone. He can relax and continue to perform at his current team-leading level. He’s hitting .302, has 22 home runs, and 55 RBI, tops on the team in all 3 categories. That’s it for the good news.

For the bad news, take your pick. Boston scored a meager five runs in three games. On Monday, starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka went back on the DL after giving up 4 hits, 2 walks, and 5 runs in one inning plus. On Tuesday, Boston’s bullpen wasted a fine effort by starter John Lester, giving up 2 runs in the bottom of the 9th. On Wednesday, the Red Sox recorded only 3 hits and 2 runs. While the A’s have been surging offensively lately, and their pitching has been characteristically good, a realistic view of the three-game set is that the Red Sox just aren’t what they used to be. Not even close. And the shocking thing is that their decline happened so quickly.

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As anyone not living under a rock last fall knows, Boston just missed the playoffs in 2011 due to a horrendous September collapse. Their season didn’t have to end that way. After a disastrous start – they were 2–10 on April 15th – Boston played like champions for the next 4½ months. On August 31st, they beat the Yankees 9–5, were 31 games over .500 and in first place, 1½ games ahead of the Yankees and 9 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. But they tanked, going 7–20 for September. The coup de grâce came on the last night of the regular season, a night of baseball that was more exciting than any in recent memory. Boston lost to the Baltimore Orioles when Jonathan Paplebon blew a save and lost the game in the bottom of the 9th. Moments later, the Red Sox were eliminated from playoff contention when Tampa beat the Yankees behind Evan Longoria’s astonishing walk-off home run in the 12th inning. It seems like it’s been all downhill for the Red Sox since August 31, 2011. Four days before the 2012 All Star break they’re just two games over .500. These aren’t your older brother’s Red Sox, and that was clear in Oakland.

During the A’s/Red Sox series, whenever Boston’s lineup was posted, its defense set, or its pinch hitters announced, I constantly found myself saying, “Wait, who?” Theo Epstein bailed. Tito Francona got canned. Kevin Youkilis now wears White Sox instead of Red Sox. Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Phillies. Jason Varitek and Manny Ramirez are long gone. Bobby Valentine? Still around, which is getting harder and harder to explain. Jacoby Ellsbury has played in only seven games this year. Carl Crawford hasn’t played at all. John Lackey has yet to pitch this season, which may be a blessing given his 6.41 ERA in 2011. Josh “only 18 off days a year” Beckett is 4–7 in 13 starts half-way through the season. Andrew Bailey, Papelbon’s replacement, underwent thumb surgery and hasn’t pitched since spring training. Matsuzaka has no wins in five starts. Between Crawford, Lackey, and Bailey, the Red Sox have $38.65 million eating spread and doing little else. The parade of horribles is depressing, and not just for Red Sox fans.

Let’s face it, MLB has a vested interest in the Red Sox performing well. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is one of the best in all of American sports. Among other benefits to MLB, such as promoting merchandise sales, the rivalry has been a huge television draw. It’s not going to be much a rivalry or draw for long if the Red Sox continue to play the way they’ve been playing. Nationally televised games featuring the Red Sox and a team other than the Yankees are also big draws. But if a Red Sox/Toronto game isn’t any better than a Cleveland/Toronto game, television audiences will surf. Right now, the live audience also shows up for Red Sox games, both at home and on the road. When Boston comes to town, the home team tends to benefit from increased attendance; “Red Sox Nation” turns out in force to support its team around the country. During the three-game Oakland/Boston series, the A’s averaged 5,500 more in attendance per game than they’re averaging for the year. By contrast, during a three game mid-week series in May with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, their division “rivals,” the A’s averaged 5,300 less per game than they’re averaging for the year. It’s hard to imagine big-time numbers showing up at Kauffman Stadium, Safeco Field, or the Oakland Coliseum for a Red Sox game if Boston is just another middling team. And that’s what they looked like in Oakland this week.

Like other middling teams, they fill in with the most recent trade acquisition here and there (Brent Lillibridge); they call up players from the minors who might not be ready to be called up (Ryan Kalish); they rely on aging vets far more than they should (Vincente Padilla and Nick Punto); and they put a lot of pressure on their few healthy, steady performers (Adrian Gonzales, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Maybe things will turn around when their injured players are finally healthy. But some of these guys haven’t just been injured, they’ve flat out disappeared. It’s one thing to go on the 15-day DL every now and then. But like I said, of Ellsbury, Crawford, Lackey, and Bailey, only Ellsbury has played at all this year, and he’s appeared in only 7 of 82 games!

Watching the A’s beat the Red Sox was honestly more enjoyable when Boston was eating teams like Oakland for breakfast on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always enjoy watching the A’s win, and that includes watching them beat Boston. That being said, I hope Boston turns this thing around. For my money, MLB is a lot more exciting when the Red Sox are one of the game’s best.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com