It’s a fun story, one that you’ve surely read or heard many times by now.
The last-place Red Sox went out and signed a bunch of good-guy free agents who changed the chemistry of a sour clubhouse and propelled the team back into the postseason.
That the new players are a colorful bunch of characters makes it an easy tale to tell.
But the convenient narrative about this Red Sox team is more of a chapter in a much bigger story.
The Red Sox are preparing for their first postseason game since 2009 due largely to a group of core players who survived the collapse of 2011 and the tumultuous one-year reign of Bobby Valentine as manager.
Their improved performance, or in some cases a return to health, is what ultimately returned the Red Sox to contention.
“That can’t be overlooked. They’ve been here the longest, they knew what the expectations are here and they set the tone every day,” manager John Farrell said. “What they did really was remarkable.”
In Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox had six players who far exceeded their contributions of a year ago.
The same was true for Daniel Nava and Craig Breslow, two fringe players who claimed larger roles.
The advanced statistic that perhaps shows the range of their impact is WAR, or wins over replacement.
WAR encompasses a player’s all-around contributions and is measured by how many wins a player is worth compared to the average replacement. The higher the number, the better the player.
Breslow, Buchholz, Ellsbury, Lester, Nava, Ortiz, Pedroia, and Saltalamacchia had a collective WAR of 13.9 in 2012. It more than doubled this season, to 31.1.
“I don’t know if any one thing explains it. But pride is the ultimate driver sometimes,” Farrell said. “There was an eagerness to change what happened here. Talent wins and talent with the right frame of mind is a powerful thing.”
The changes up the middle were telling. Ellsbury, the center fielder, played in only 74 games in 2012 and was a below-average hitter. He returned healthy and hit .298 with 48 extra-base hits and 52 stolen bases.
Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs in 2012 but had a .288 on-base percentage. He matured into a well-rounded hitter in 2013, hitting .273 with an .804 OPS. His 40 doubles set a franchise record for catchers.
“It has been a process for me from getting to play and then getting to play every day,” Saltalamacchia said. “It feels like it came together this season.”
Pedroia raised his on-base percentage from .347 to .372 and was able to play in 19 more games. His slugging percentage dipped because of a thumb injury but his WAR climbed by 1.5 wins.
“Last year, a lot of things happened and nothing was going to change that,” Pedroia said. “I think we all got to spring training and turned the page.”
Among the players coming back from last season, there was a clear sense that improvement was needed.
“We never talked about it,” Ellsbury said. “It was just something that I think we all knew. Everybody in this clubhouse is very competitive and we took that into offseason workouts and into spring training and then into the regular season.
“It’s definitely very gratifying to go from where we were to where we are now.”
As Farrell was consulting with general manager Ben Cherington last fall about what free agents and trades to pursue, he was connecting with the returning players to get a read on how they felt about the direction of the team.
“I got a sense of it in the phone conversations in early November. The mind-set they had was to put behind us what happened,” the manager said. “I gave them a moment to vent and then I said, ‘Let’s focus on what we can do moving forward from today.’ Hopefully that was taken to heart.”
Lester was perhaps the biggest project. Once an All-Star and the staff ace, the lefthander was 9-14 with a 4.82 earned run average in 2012 and had grown weary of getting mixed messages from a revolving cast of pitching coaches.
Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves made adjustments to Lester’s delivery that restored both the bite of his pitches and his confidence.
“Just in general, continuity breeds success and when you don’t have that continuity you’re always learning one another,” Farrell said. “Stability lends to good things.
“Jon is a very concrete thinker and the more we can make things black and white for him, he operates better. That’s where being consistent and being specific works for him.”
For Ortiz, it was simply a matter of healing. He was having a strong 2012 season before a strained right Achilles’ tendon derailed him. Once Ortiz returned this season, so did his production. In Nava’s case, more playing time unlocked his potential.
One of the reasons Farrell was eager to come back to the Red Sox as manager was the knowledge that the core group of players could — and would — rebound. The Red Sox were a last-place team in 2012 but they were an atypical last-place team.
“Looking at the names on paper, what [happened in 2012] was no reflection on the talent here,” Farrell said. “They were talented players. Sure, talent had to be brought in. But the starting point was very strong. They have proven that this season.”