Monday, September 19, 2011

Heart Shaped Box

Some people in the Red Sox media (I won't name names in case one of my good friends was actually able to get them to read my humble little sports blog) have attributed this September to Not Remember to a lack of something that every living, breathing human has smack dab in the middle of their chest: heart. Of course this is ridiculous. Despite being the walking wounded, this current Boston team is not the walking dead. Zombies only exist in the minds of George Romero, Simon Pegg and Baltimore corner boys. So clearly staking the claim that Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford et al. have no heart makes these unnamed columnists clinically insane, right?

Well unless this guy is writing for the Globe, we know not to take these claims literally. Of course, by saying the team has no heart these columnists really mean the team lacks intensity, clutchiness, fire in the bellies, chutzpah, intangibles and that certain I don't know what. According to the media this team thinks they can roll out the balls and bats and magically have 100 wins appear. They do not play through injuries because why would you when so many guys are making $20 million a year*. There are too many J.D. Drews and Josh Becketts and not enough Dustin Pedroias, but what would you expect from a team that is led by an excuse making manager who manages for 162 games instead of trying to get 4 game winning streaks (approximate quote from one of the unnamed). The team wasn't ready to start the season because they thought things would come easy and they are collapsing down the stretch because they assumed the playoffs were a gift-wrapped-foregone-conclusion. That sure is a lot of meaning wrapped into one little metaphor. Unfortunately it is almost 100% bull shit.

*There is one player on the Red Sox making $20 million a year, Carl Crawford. Adrian Gonzalez made $5.5 million this year. His extension starts next year. Nobody else makes $20 million, though it is fun to overstate how overpaid players like John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are.

The real reason for the collapse is very obvious, but for some reason people choose to ignore the problem. The Red Sox are 4-13 in September because of injuries, specifically to their pitching staff. Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, Erik Bedard and Beckett have all missed starts in September. In their place, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Kyle "Plush" Weiland have made multiple ineffective starts. Bobby Jenks, the man who was supposed to be the lockdown 7th inning specialist, has missed the majority of the season as well. Add in the fact that Lackey has been Lackey all month, Jon Lester has had two poorly timed bad starts and Daniel Bard has reverted to his old bad habits temporarily and it is a recipe for disaster. For the month, Red Sox pitchers have a 5.98 ERA*. When the month started, the team had a 3.87 ERA.

*The offense is still mostly humming along. Their rates (average, OBP, slugging) are down some, but they have scored 5.3 runs per game this month compared to 5.4 on the season overall.

Somewhere along the line, people got it in their heads that one of the marks of a great player is his ability to play through injuries for the good of the team. This logic is incredibly flawed though and we have a perfect example this year in Kevin Youkilis (or the later stages of Cal Ripken's career). Youk is a classic Sox player, a "Dirt Dawg" through and through. He consistently puts up between 5 and 6 HRT (second only to Pedroia's 6.3 HRT average each season). He also does actual things on the baseball field really well like hitting and, when he played 1st base, defense.

This year, though, Youk is a broken man. He has missed 29 games so far, the result of a litany of injuries, but has fought valiantly to stay in the lineup because the Red Sox need his bat. The bat that is hitting .190/.304/.342 with 2 home runs since August 1st. With everyone healthy Youk is clearly the best third baseman on this team, but those numbers show that whatever state his body is in now is not getting it done (also watching him is excruciating, you can see every movement causing pain). So why wouldn't you want him to sit out while Mike Aviles or Jed Lowrie plays at a higher level? Remember, in this case you aren't comparing Aviles/Lowrie to a healthy Youk, you are comparing them to the walking wounded.

The thing is baseball is a sport built on precision. The batter must place a round bat on a round ball. The pitcher must throw a ball very hard with specific movement and make sure it flies through a box 17 inches wide and about 2 feet high. A weak knee or a stiff neck* or a strained rib cage may not sound like much, but when you are trying to smack a 95 MPH projectile 400 feet you suddenly start to notice these things.

*Today, Crawford asked out of the lineup due to a stiff neck. The sports radio shows are already torching him. One caller said, "Stiff neck? More like yellow belly!" Hilarious. I would ask that everybody reading this stand up and take a full baseball swing or run and slide or do a crow hop and throw home and see if your neck is not involved in those activities. Also, his replacement, Darnell McDonald, just hit a home run. Why? Partially because he is healthy.

I'm going to say something that may shock you: baseball is not football. This is meant as no disrespect to football players, but it is a lot easier to play through injuries in football than in baseball. Now, it is easier to get injured in football than baseball, but the nature of the game allows players to play through a stiff neck or bum ankle.

While baseball is all about precision, football is more centered on speed and strength*, both of which can still be obtained while injured. If a lineman breaks his finger, like J.D. Drew has as his most recent injury, he can wrap his hand and still go out and do his job. If a middle linebacker has a stiff neck he can pop some pain killers and grit his teeth and still make tackles and worry about the pain afterwards.

*I am well aware how much precision and skill goes into football, but I still think it is easier to fake it through an injury in football than in baseball.

What I think is happening with all this crazy talk about the Red Sox not having "heart" is that this town is still having its football affair (we will see what happens when Tom Brady and Bill Belichick aren't around) so they expect the baseball players to be football players. You know what? If you want the baseball players to be football players go back to turning your heads while they do steroids and HGH just like you still do with football players.

Before I wrap this up, I want to make two more related counterpoints. The first argument thrown about regarding the injuries is that every team goes through injuries especially this late in the year. In some context that is true. Players are banged up and diminished at this time of year. Alex Rodriguez is battling through injuries right now and I'm sure there are players on the Rays in the same boat. But if you take a look at the Yankees's and Rays's rotations today, they look almost exactly the same as they did on opening day. The Red Sox are missing 2/5 of their opening day rotation, and 3/9 of their starting lineup (Drew, Lowrie, Youk).

The logical follow up to this argument is that they did not do a good enough job with their depth. In the lineup this is completely false as they haven't really missed a beat without any of these players. The rotation is debatable. Today on the radio, somebody said, "You are telling me that in a tight pennant race, Kyle Weiland is the best you can do with a $160 million payroll?" Well, ya. He is the number 9 starter for the Red Sox this year (actually more like 10 or 11 as he probably would have been behind Felix Doubront and Junichi Tazawa if they were healthy all year). Were you expecting to have an All Star caliber pitcher as your number 9 pitcher? Again, 2/5 of the opening day rotation is out. The pitcher they got to fix this issue at the deadline is out (and please don't say that they should have done something better at the deadline, there wasn't any better available). So that is 3 pitchers down. Number 7 (Wakefield) started yesterday and number 8 (Miller) had to relieve him. So again, who else would they go with? The number 9 pitchers for the Yankees and Rays are probably equally bad only they never had to use them (Yankees starts have gone to 6 pitchers all year save for 2 starts and the Rays have used 6 also save for 4 starts).

Injuries are a shitty reason to have to use for a team failing, but this year there is little else to go on. The September ERA and full infirmary speak for themselves. There is definite mystery in why these injuries have happened for the second year in a row (bad training, bad medical staff, soft players, enabling manager), but the swoon itself is no mystery.

Guts and gusto and gumption creates a fun narrative. It is far more entertaining to think that a 5'7" dynamo like Pedroia can light a fire under the ass of the team to lead them to glory. It is more fun to think that David Roberts's steal in 2004 changed the attitude of the team and the momentum carried them to victory rather than the fact that the Yankees's starting pitching wasn't very good. It's cool to look back and think that "Cowboy Up" and pre-game whiskey shots and chemistry were key factors in the first World Series title in 86 years rather than two great pitchers, a strong bullpen and a great, but probably juiced up, offense. At the end of the day though, the large large large majority of what happens on a baseball field is determined by who plays better and in baseball it is hard to play better than the other guys when you are not healthy.

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