The Red Sox season hasn’t gone according to plan, and much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of 62-year-old manager Bobby Valentine. Several members of the Red Sox are fed up with Valentine, and the situation reportedly came to a head in late July, when this group was highly critical of its manager and expressed those sentiments to ownership.
Regardless of whether or not these players informed ownership that they no longer wanted to play for Valentine, the new manager has undergone intense scrutiny this season. That tends to happen when a team with such high expectations is 59-62 through 121 games, 12.5 games out of first place in its division and five games out of the second wild card berth.
But much of this criticism is undeserved, as the Red Sox have experienced a litany of issues this year that have had far more of a material impact than the manager himself. While studies have shown the impact of a manager to be marginal at most over a 162-game season, it’s still a non-zero effect. However, injuries to key members of both the starting lineup and bullpen, strange and almost out-of-nowhere struggles from the starting rotation, and below average contributions from counted-on position players are why the Red Sox are on pace to miss the playoffs for the third straight season… not Valentine.
A season can get derailed very easily when key members of the team are placed on the disabled list. Carl Crawford, the high-priced outfielder who disappointed just about everyone last season, didn’t make his 2012 debut until mid-July. Jacoby Ellsbury, who finished 2nd in 2011 AL MVP voting, went on the disabled list in late-April after sliding into second base, and returned around the same time. David Ortiz, who continues to improve despite being in his mid-30s, injured his Achilles tendon and missed time. Andrew Bailey, the closer imported from Oakland, made his Red Sox debut on August 14.
Dustin Pedroia missed time with a thumb injury, came back a bit too early, and landed on the disabled list after injuring the very same thumb. Clay Buchholz missed time with esophagitis. Kevin Youkilis was ineffective when in the lineup, but out of the lineup with injuries rather often before his trade to the White Sox. His replacement, Will Middlebrooks, was just pronounced out for the season.
The Red Sox would have struggled under the leadership of Connie Mack and Earl Weaver with all of these injuries. Perhaps Valentine didn’t manage the roster well in the absence of these crucial players, but their absence is paramount here. Teams tend to struggle when their lineup, comprised of all-stars, lacks said all-stars and reinforcements capable of replacing that lost production.
Lester and Beckett Struggle Mightily
The Red Sox rotation had question marks entering the season, but the performances of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett weren’t on that list. These two were supposed to anchor the rotation and help the Red Sox overcome the injuries. While their peripherals have been solid, their run-prevention hasn’t. Some of that is attributable to luck, but it’s folly to suggest that the entirety of their struggles is out of their respective hands. Beckett has a 5.19 ERA in 121.1 innings over 20 starts, while Lester has a 5.03 ERA in 154 innings over 25 starts. Yet Beckett has a 4.28 SIERA and Lester fares even better with a 3.71 SIERA.
Both pitchers are missing bats and limiting walks at very good rates, but have struggled mightily once runners reach base. Beckett has a 21.5% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate when the bases are empty, but those rates decline substantially to 10.1% and 9.7%, respectively, with ducks on the pond.
His numbers are even worse with runners in scoring position, with an 8.9% strikeout rate and a 12.9% walk rate. He doesn’t allow many runners to reach base, but when they get to their positions he essentially turns into a pumpkin. Most of his work has come with the bases empty, and his .270 wOBA against speaks to his effectiveness. But when runners reach base Beckett has allowed a .402 wOBA against; it’s like facing Ryan Braun once batters reach base.
Lester hasn’t fared as poorly, with K/BB ratios above 2.0 regardless of the baserunning split. His major problem has been serving up home runs, especially with runners on base. When the bases are empty, he has a 0.85 HR/9, which rises to 1.42 with men on base, and 1.55 with runners in scoring position. He doesn’t get hit around a ton, but the hits are home runs more often than usual.
The Misleading Offense
As a team, the Red Sox rank above average in various offensive categories. However, a closer examination of the parts that make up the whole reveals that many of their players have struggled at the plate, either from an overall standpoint, or in a sense relative to their past levels of production. On top of that, several key contributors have either been injured or traded.
Adrian Gonzalez is having a good, albeit not great, season. His .353 wOBA is an improvement on where it was earlier in the year, but he hasn’t posted a wOBA below .360 since becoming a full-time regular with the 2006 Padres. Over the last three seasons, he has hovered in the .380-.400 range.
Dustin Pedroia hasn’t fallen below .360 either since becoming an everyday player in 2007. His current .331 wOBA is well below his career averages and the level of performance he has established over the last few seasons. Jacoby Ellsbury has a measly .302 wOBA in 178 Pas since returning.
Kelly Shoppach (.343 wOBA) was dealt and Middlebrooks (.356 wOBA) is out for the season. Aside from David Ortiz, Cody Ross and Daniel Nava, the lineup has been fairly disappointing. Again, this is out of Bobby Valentine’s control, as he can only work with what he’s given.
Bobby Valentine isn’t without his faults, but to blame him for the Red Sox struggles this season is to ignore the numerous important issues the team has had to deal with all season. It’s hard to win when all-stars are out of the lineup, the closer gets hurt before the season begins, and starting pitchers designed to anchor the rotation become major question marks and potential trade targets. It’s unclear what the future holds for Valentine and the Red Sox, but this much is clear: there were many more material problems this season than the manager, and just because he is an easy target and in a position where a quick fix can be had, it’s not all or even mostly his fault.