In 2003, the city of Boston wasn’t exactly desperate for the winter, but they were longing for one. Yes, the Patriots had won at 2002’s outset, but Boston has never been a Patriots town, and when they followed that up with a 9-7 season that ended without a playoff appearance, they lost their grip on the public. The Celtics and Bruins had reliably made the playoffs, but even though the Celtics put up a good fight in 2002, neither won their respective conferences.
So the eyes of Boston turned back, as they tend to do, to the Red Sox. And they were hopeful. The team had won 93 games in 2002, but that still left them six games shy of the postseason. Even under today’s new Wild Card rules they would have missed out, as the Twins finished 1.5 games ahead of them (of course, who knows what would have happened had the rules actually been different, I’m just saying there were lots of good teams that year).
On that 93-win foundation, new general manager Theo Epstein had made a number of changes. You know the story. Epstein eschewed big-time free agents, and instead scored several players on smaller deals or acquisitions — Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Jeremy Giambi and of course, David Ortiz. A similar approach was applied to the bullpen. Their failure of the closer by committee “experiment” were overblown, but Epstein would nonetheless admit defeat twice — once during the season when he traded for Byung-Hyun Kim before the end of May and once after it when he boated a big bass to anchor the ‘pen in Keith Foulke.
The offense was a different story. It succeeded beyond even the most unreasonable Red Sox’s fans expectations. The team’s 2002 offense, when you strip out pitchers, finished fourth in the majors with a 108 wRC+, and overall finished second to only the Yankees with 859 runs scored. Pretty good. Hard to top that. Oh, but they did. The 2003 team pumped 961 runs across the plate, and when pitchers are removed, led the majors with a 121 wRC+. Both marks are in the top 25 all-time (actually, since 1901, which I consider “all-time”) and no team has bettered either mark since.
It’s hard to overstate just how good the offense was for Boston in ’03, but let’s start here — 10 players on the squad compiled at least 200 plate appearances, and of them the worst wRC+ belonged to Johnny Damon (97). It was actually kind of a rough year for Damon. He hit just .260/.329/.404 in the first half before heating up in the second half. He was at his best during the American League Division Series against his former team, the A’s — he hit .316/.409/.579 for the series. But that series came to an abrupt end for him when he and Damian Jackson collided in horrific fashion in Game 5. Tough as nails despite his slight (compared to his peers, anyway) frame, Damon would return for the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, but he wasn’t the same.
Getting back to the regular season, Boston’s offense was both top heavy and deep. In Manny Ramirez (sixth), Trot Nixon (eighth), Bill Mueller (15th) and David Ortiz (16th), the team had four of the game’s top 20 in wRC+. No other team had more than two players in the top 20. Mueller and Ramirez finished one and two for the AL batting title, Ramirez took the on-base percentage crown and Ortiz, Ramirez and Nixon finished three, four and five in slugging percentage. Others chipped in as well. Nomar Garciaparra would have the final fully healthy and productive season of his career, and his 124 wRC+ ranked fifth on the team. In fact, nearly everyone was good. Fourteen members of the team compiled at least 100 PA, and the only one with a wRC+ under 90 was Jackson, who came in at 60. Can’t win them all.
Ramirez was the star of the show. He currently ranks 11th in intentional walks all-time, and 2003 was his biggest year for them, as he led the AL with 28 gifted bases. In 2003, he put up a .400 wOBA for the ninth consecutive season, and unlike 2002 — when he stupidly broke his finger on a hands-first home-plate slide — he was a rock in the lineup all season. Even without the free passes, he walked more than he struck out, which was the first and only time he did that in his career (although he came really close again in ’06). Even when he was pitched to, he was pitched to particularly carefully.
Of course, as I mentioned, Ramirez was always good. In order to be a historic offense though, you need some guys to step up and be better than they were expected to be. In Nixon, Mueller and Ortiz, with a side helping of Jason Varitek, the Sox received exactly those career years.
In 2001, Nixon hit .280/.376/.505, good for a .378 wOBA. It was a big year for Nixon, particularly from a power standpoint. He was still good in 2002, but he came back down from those highs, and it seemed like he would plateau nicely where he was. Then he went out and smashed for all of ’03. It was his last fully healthy season, and it easily went down as his most productive. He posted a 152 wRC+, which was 21 percent better than he had been in ’01.
Mueller was similarly 20 percent better in ’03 than he had been in ’01, which was also his best season up to that point. But where Nixon had his two best seasons at age 27 and 29, Mueller did so at age 30 and 32. Mueller’s power surge was also more surprising. He popped a career-high 19 homers, which was six more than he had hit in the previous two seasons combined. His .214 ISO in ’03 was 62 points better than his ’01 mark, and easily went down as his career best. Mueller would be a big part of Boston’s ’04 and ’05 teams before retiring, but he was never better than he was in ’03.
Ortiz would become better than he was in ’03. In fact, he’d end up being much better in subsequent seasons. But ’03 was the first year that he became DAVID ORTIZ. When he came to Boston, there was a lot of talk about how the Twins had stifled him and tried to turn him into a singles hitter, which seemed a little off considering that Ortiz had slugged .500 in 2002. Then he went out and slugged .592 in ’03, and topped .600 in the four seasons afterwards. The Twins’ decision to cut bait on Ortiz remains mystifying to this day, especially when you consider that their main designated hitters from 2003-2006 were Matt LeCroy, Jose Offerman and a hollowed-out Rondell White. Even though Ortiz had totaled just 2.1 WAR in his first six seasons, it isn’t exactly easy to find players capable of slugging .500. In any case, Minnesota’s loss was Boston’s gain, and while he didn’t receive steady playing time until May, he finished second on the team in homers.
Ortiz was one of six players to pop 25 or more homers for the ’03 club, and Varitek was another. His 25 taters would go down as his career high, and the outburst was a mild surprise. Like Mueller and Nixon, Varitek had posted a career-best 122 wRC+ in 2001, but it was in just 198 PA. In 2002, he went back to being the same guy he had been before 2001. From 1997-2000, he posted a 92 wRC+, and in ’02 he tallied a 91 wRC+. So his return to the 120 plateau in ’03 — which he would maintain in ’04 and ’05 — was a big break for the Sox.
It wasn’t just the starters who came through for Epstein either. He dealt Hillenbrand, and the team didn’t look back. He also made a devil of a move in acquiring Gabe Kapler. Kapler had been terrible on the Rockies that season — he had posted a woeful 35 wRC+ in 76 PA in Colorado, and he had hit just .171 in his even more brief stay in Triple-A Colorado Springs. Then Kapler came to Boston and promptly went 4-for-5 in his Red Sox debut, and followed that up by hitting two homers the next night. Welcome to Boston. He would post a 110 wRC+ overall in his time in Boston that season, up a cool 75 percent from his time with the Rockies.
In order to have a historic offense, you need to have stars, and you need to have depth. The 2003 Red Sox had both. We haven’t seen an offense better than them since in the game, and there hasn’t been a better Red Sox offense ever. Thanks in part to Grady Little, the Olde Towne Team wouldn’t deliver its long awaited championship to the Fenway faithful for one more season, but in ’03 they certainly established a new level of excellence for which to continuously strive.
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