A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Red Sox

Game Team Barely Won Is Turning Point in Imaginary Narrative

by evanmcmurry

Is there any contrivance more abused in sportswriting than “the turning point“?

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The Red Sox managed more walks than hits and runs combined over the last two games against the White Sox, neither of which they particularly deserved to win. Lester’s pitching was more coincidental with their poor hitting than it was a causal interaction with it.

But that’s all beside the point. The season is sixteen games old; that’s like asking for the turning point of a novel in the first chapter. There’s no narrative yet.

(This rhetorical crutch is even worse with broadcasters, who view every good pitch or outfield single as a potential turning point for player/game/team/season.)

Red Sox Operation Continues to Have Brain, Money

by evanmcmurry


This could spell the end to any speculation that Boston may be in on the Shin-Soo Choo sweepstakes, although those rumors have dampened lately.

Cherington and John Farrell both stated they would be happy with having Jackie Bradley Jr. as the starting center fielder come Opening Day and given the deal that Choo is seeking, reportedly between Jayson Werth‘s $126 million and Ellsbury’s massive 7-year and $153 MM, the Sox may decide to pass on him as well.

The Sox wisely pivoted away from the bloated Gonzalez/Crawford/Dice K contracts after the 2011/2012 fiascos, and focused on a swath mid-range players who put up significantly more consistent performances (which is to say, consistent at all). It’s heartening to see them letting the Yankees pay Ellsbury too much money and not feeling the need to compete in the cold war of ballplayer salaries.

John Lackey and the Problem With Redemption Narratives

by evanmcmurry

Last night, John Lackey became the only pitcher in history to clinch two different World Series Championships. The previous victory had occurred with the Angels in 2002. This fact, combined with a summary examination of Lackey’s stats and $84 million salary, could easily lead you to believe that Lackey is a dominant pitcher who has spent the last eleven years perfecting his craft.

This is, of course, nonsense. Lackey recently suffered one of the most embarrassing public meltdowns in contemporary sports history. He imploded on the field, to the point that Red Sox fans watched his starts—rarely more than five innings, usually involving seven or eight earned runs—through their fingers. He imploded on the mound, screaming profanities when fly balls dropped for singles, openly berating infielders for letting a ground ball go into the outfield, visibly arguing with managers who tried to take him out of the game and then stalking off the field when he lost. And he imploded off the field, as his wife’s battle with cancer led to divorce discussions.

A notable side effect of Lackey’s implosion: innumerable redemption pieces written by well-intentioned sportswriters trying to make sense of the complete collapse of Boston’s high-level acquisition. Something about John Lackey did strange things to sports commentators, who are already prone to see every hit as Changing the Momentum and every strikeout as a narrative pivot. So for a while in 2011, it seemed as if all sportswriters had been conscripted into reading John Lackey’s every twitch as a sign that he was Turning It Around.

An otherwise insightful piece by Grantland‘s Chris Jones captures this wistful aesthetic perfectly:

“I feel like I’m still building,” he said, “but for the first time in a while, I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”

Most important, John Lackey was smiling.

And the reader was puking. More to the point, Jones was wrong: his profile came only a couple of months before the Red Sox’s historically epic season-end collapse, in which the pitcher played a primary role. The rumors of beer swilling and fried chicken eating centered on Lackey and removed any notion of moral alchemy from his tale: he wasn’t a once-great athlete struggling desperately with decline. He was getting drunk and fat, and then acting like a petulant child when he lost games. Lackey ended the year by undergoing Tommy John surgery, removing him for the whole 2012 season. Many speculated he wouldn’t return, and nobody, including yours truly, wanted him to. The redemption narrative had been irreversibly poisoned.

But there’s another and more abstract element that I think motivated sportswriters into insisting on Lackey’s salvation, besides the obvious professional and structural incentives. “Narratives” in sports are often presented as counterpoised to the drier sabermetric analysis that disregards motive, ethic, and character and focuses single-mindedly on the naked facts of performance. Under the stat-wonk view of things, if you’re a .370 pitcher who averages a certain number of strikeouts and walks per season, you may go on streaks, you may suffer droughts, but ultimately you’re going to wind up pitching about .370. If wonks have a First Commandment, it’s regression to the mean.

Lackey destroyed this. He had never had the lowest ERA around, but it was enough to encourage the (admittedly profligate) Red Sox to dump money on his driveway. He won games, even with some lackluster Angels teams, and had strikeouts to boot. The veer his pitching took when he came to Boston was inexplicable by statistical measures. With each game, Lackey drifted further and further from his own statistical form. If numbers couldn’t explain this, it’s possible something non-measurable was the cause. This was the opening for the redemption narrative, not only as a means of explaining Lackey, but as a response to the cold certainty of sabermetrics. He was a one-man experiment, a question stats couldn’t answer: What happens when a player simply goes off the deep end?

It’s possible to read Lackey’s underrated 2013 season—during Lester’s slump and Buchholz’s stint on the DL, Lackey was, amazingly, the Sox’s ace—as a vindication of either view. A healthy Lackey pitched much closer to the arm the Sox signed several years ago, suggesting his meltdown really was a physical ailment expressing itself emotionally. You could also read his comeback as a moral reformation of a man who had hit rock bottom when publicly exposed as a lout eating and drinking on an $84 million wage.

I don’t buy either. Lackey seemed thrilled to clinch last night, but his anger simmered below the surface for the entire postseason, visible on his aggrieved face during the rain delay against the Tigers two weeks ago, and unmistakeable last night when he argued, quite vociferously, to stay on the mound despite letting two runners on-base. Lackey’s three-year trip through his own personal valley seems to have been hellish, and I’m not sure that he wouldn’t trade last night’s victory to have made those years go away; they don’t appear to have been worth it, not even to him. That, at least, is how I view the player I now find to be most fascinating member of the Boston Red Sox: a guy stats can’t explain, and who doesn’t buy his own narrative.

Working the Count

by evanmcmurry


Boston batters lead the Majors with 4.08 pitches seen per plate appearance.

And that’s without Kevin Youkilis!

Can We Cut It With The “Sweet Caroline” Now?

by evanmcmurry

Look, I’m a good guy, and I want people to be happy and safe and even experience occasional interludes of beauty and so forth. But can we please stop pretending “Sweet Caroline” has a single thing to do with the Boston Red Sox? (To say nothing of its treacly sub-McCartney chorus for children and invalids.) Wander with me down Wikipedia lane:

Boston’s Fenway Park has played the song since at least 1997, and it has been played at every game in the middle of the eighth inning since 2002 by the influence of Amy Tobey, a production agent responsible for the audio played over the park’s loudspeakers. “She had noticed ‘Sweet Caroline’ was used at other sporting events, and she decided to send the sweetness over the Fenway speakers.”

You see, the connection to Fenway is that it was played at so many other places first. For Boston!

I’m not even anti-Neil Diamond; that time Colonel Nilsen got drunk and blasted him out of the speakers of his Saturn in the parking lot of 1600 Newning was a hoot. And I’ll grant the lyrics some accidental poignancy: “And when I hurt/ Hurting runs off my shoulders/ How can I hurt when holding you?” no doubt salved some wounds this weekend, no matter what the words were originally in reference to.

But the tune seems poised to pass into history as “Come Together on Landsdowne,” which would be an unfortunate glide of circumstance and association, rather than actual connection or resonance. “There are two kinds of people who follow the Sox,” Pierce wrote this morning, after the Sunday shows invoked Diamond’s song as shorthand for Boston healing. “The ones that think ‘Sweet Caroline’ is iconic and actual fans. These groups are mutually exclusive.”

People, if you need a rousing anthem with historical connection to the Team That Plays Baseball In Fenway, here’s one, and here’s a punk version for the kiddies. To quote Pierce, “Never has America needed the Ramones more.”

Sorry, Mike Napoli

by evanmcmurry

Last week, when Mike Napoli had a batting average of an age one could conceivably live to, Sox fans were calling for his head.

In the past five days, he’s accounted for 33% of the Sox’s RBIs, including a walk-off.

I’m sure everybody’s apologizing to him on Twitter.


by evanmcmurry

On Shane Victorino’s signing to the Sox:

Red Sox manager John Farrell indicated that whoever plays right field for Boston will need the defensive skills to handle the position.

You might think any player playing any position would need the defensive skills to do so. You would be wrong.

Red Sox May Still Want To Be Liked, Maybe

by evanmcmurry

If you’re looking for clues that the Red Sox are taking at least baby steps toward becoming a non-embarrassing franchise again, consider that they’re looking to resign David Ortiz and Cody Ross.

Ortiz is the more significant of the two. Two years ago, it looked like Ortiz was done for, at least in a Sox uniform; but now he is the only remaining member of the ’04 Idiots, is hands down the most visible and likable personality on the team, and most, important, is still really fking good. One of the worst in a huge dustbin of disappointments in 2012 is that the Sox wasted a banner year from Ortiz; via ESPN, Ortiz went .318 with 23 home runs and 60 RBIs, leading the Sox in all measures of hitting during the stretch he was healthy.

The catch: other teams can make competing offers to Ortiz this year. He’s been vocal that he wants to retire in a Sox uniform, and not in the last-minute trade version of Garciaparra; so it’s left to the Sox to make sure they do right by him. If the Sox ditch Papi, especially after offloading Adrian Gonzalez, they’d lose both their best hitter and their best personality.

Ross, a free agent, is also the type of the player the Sox should keep around. A key component of the Giants’ World Series run, Ross hit well for the Sox this year, stepping up after mainstays like Ellsbury and Pedroia went down to injuries. And unlike some players we won’t mention, he performs well despite a relatively low price tag.

The Sox still have massive, and massively expensive, problems in John Lackey, Dice-K, and others. But resigning good, likable, affordable players would be a nice start toward next season; on the other hand, losing one or both of Ortiz and Ross would be quite deflating. I still wear my Sox cap daily on the streets of New York City; I’d like not to do so in vain.


Baseball’s Not Fair, Part 343

by evanmcmurry

Alfredo Aceves, the reluctant closer of the Red Sox, picked up his first win of the season tonight when Cody Ross hit a walk-off three run homer in the bottom of the 9th. Not the pitcher who threw eight innings of one-hit ball, nor the guy who single-handedly won the game with one swing of the bat. Nope, Aceves with the win. He gave up 25% of the White Sox’s hits, too.

Ex-Red Sox Players Continue To Punish Red Sox For Trading Them

by evanmcmurry

YOUK with a three-run shot last night. Without it, Sox (Red) would have won 5-3.

Josh Reddick, by the by, one of last year’s more exciting rookies, is currently leading the Oakland As in batting average, home runs (20!), RBIs, runs, and OPS. For you more visual learners:

Reddick made life very difficult for the Sox when they were in Oakland a couple months ago.

Meanwhile, Andrew Bailey is still on the DL, and Brad Lillibridge has a .125 batting average with no RBIs; YOUK now has more RBIs in Fenway as a White Sox than Lillibridge does as a Red Sox.

So, good trades all around.