The shift is drastic. The Red Sox have played like a different team.
That’s because, in many ways, they are one.
They are just two months from their downward spiral to nowhere, the post-All-Star break swoon that effectively demolished any realistic hopes the team had for 2015.
Yet from the wreckage of a team that possessed a 44-58 record on July 29 and a 52-66 mark entering Aug. 18, a strange thing has emerged: Hope.
The Red Sox are a team that has a clear sense of where it’s trying to go and is moving in the intended direction. The team is 32-22 (.593) since July 29, and 25-14 since Aug. 18 (.641), playoff-caliber stretches over roughly the final third of the season.
The success has arrived far too late to salvage 2015. But it’s changed the tone and outlook of the organization and its fans.
“It’s given each player confidence individually to say, ‘We’re ready to turn the page and contend for a championship next year,’” said interim manager Torey Lovullo. “We feel really good about what direction this organization is going in. … There was a period of time about two and a half months ago when we were all depressed. We weren’t feeling so good about things. They deserve so much credit for picking themselves up and making this happen.”
So how, exactly, did the Red Sox become a team emboldened to think that vastly better days are ahead?
Roster overhaul and the emergence of a young core
July 27: Shane Victorino traded to the angels
July 28: Mookie Betts’s concussion opens the door for Jackie Bradley Jr.
July 31: The Red Sox (largely) push ahead after the trade deadline
Aug. 2: Rick Porcello lands on the disabled list; Red Sox call up Henry Owens
Aug. 7: Mike Napoli traded to Rangers
In retrospect, it proved far harder than expected for the Red Sox to shift their identity after the 2013 championship season. That group was so close-knit that it made it challenging – in the words of one team official, “traumatic” – to alter that jigsaw-puzzle-perfect roster and to create a new identity built around a rising young core.
In the waning days of July and beginning of August, the Red Sox clipped some of the most important strings that connected them to their title run. Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli were both signature additions of the 2013 Sox. Nonetheless, the trade of Victorino, which opened an outfield spot for Rusney Castillo, and the Napoli deal, which cleared an everyday role for Travis Shaw, may have done more than create playing time for young players.
With those voices gone, at a time when Dustin Pedroia was on the disabled list, the standard instinct of young players to follow the leader underwent a change. Suddenly, the young players represented the identity of the team. Trailblazers Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts as well as Brock Holt were surrounded by former minor league teammates.
That created conviction that it was no longer time to get in line. Instead, the young players could start to lead.
“Once you see the leader go away, you’ve got to put in play what you learned from them. I guess that’s what all those guys are doing,” said David Ortiz. “They have been able to go out there and put in play whatever they’ve learned. That’s what we’re seeing right now.”
The changes continued beyond the trades. After Betts suffered a concussion, Jackie Bradley Jr. was told that he’d get to play every day while Betts was out, giving him just enough time to overcome a rocky start.
While Bradley started by going 5-for-50, he started hitting in New York on Aug. 6, and sustained that through Betts’ return on Aug. 11. Instead of being returned to Triple A, he maintained his place in the lineup.
By the end of July, as the Sox had pulled up from their free-fall to a three-week stretch of playing roughly .500 ball, there was clarity about what the team hoped to accomplish over the duration of the season.
“We didn’t make any moves [at the trade deadline. Manager John Farrell] had to make sure everyone was on the same page,” said Ortiz. “John had a meeting basically telling us, look, we’re in a tough situation, but I want you guys to come in and do your best every day. I’m not saying we weren’t, but he said even if we weren’t going anywhere, we still had to come in and do our jobs. I think that’s something that had to do with [the turnaround]. … I think that’s what everyone is doing.”
Aug. 14: John Farrell steps down for lymphoma treatment; Torey Lovullo named interim manager
Aug. 18: Dave Dombrowski named president of baseball operations; Ben Cherington steps down as general manager.
There were signs of promise in the first half of August, particularly as players like Bradley, Shaw, and Castillo started to assert themselves. The team wasn’t plummeting, instead just treading water.
Then came the sea change. The Sox had already signaled a major organizational transition with the news in early August that Larry Lucchino would step down after the season as CEO, with Sam Kennedy replacing him as team president. Still, that barely registered among the players – unlike the events of Aug. 14 and 18.
In theory, the management shakeup could have produced a broad spectrum of outcomes. It wouldn’t have come as a surprise if the team had responded by heading down the drain. Or, perhaps, nothing would have altered on the field.
Neither of those outcomes occurred, perhaps in part because the change in the front office gave Lovullo an opening to assert his own form of leadership in an address to the team that followed some remarks by both Kennedy and then-assistant GM Mike Hazen.
“I think a lot of people were probably looking for a little bit of guidance at that time,” said Lovullo. “I think at that point I had managed two games or one game – I’m not exactly sure – but I thought it was my responsibility to say these are my expectations and nothing is going to change them. We are the Boston Red Sox and we are going to play Boston Red Sox baseball.
“I outlined my expectations, which were perfectly clear: Win every day, the next part was to let them know they were all being evaluated and we were going to make decisions moving forward for the best of this organization, and the third thing was we weren’t going to change our principles. We were still going to play relentless baseball. We were expected to be professional. And we were expected to be good teammates. Maybe it was a reminder that that was still expected, that we weren’t going to play American Legion-style baseball. The guys really responded.”
The changes served as a prelude to the Sox’ best stretch of the year – 25-14 after Tuesday’s win in New York – that has altered completely the view of what might be possible for the Red Sox in the near future.
There are complex and uncomfortable questions. Cherington played a part in the acquisition of nearly all the players who are now flourishing, yet in several instances, they’ve elevated their collective performance since his departure.
Did change serve as a catalyst?
At least one rookie who’s altered his career path believes the answer is yes.
“It could have to do with a new guy,” Shaw theorized. “There’s a lot of jobs up in the air next year, there’s a new guy to impress, just kind of stepped it up to try to win a spot for next year. It makes sense. I know in my case, the new guy’s in town, I’m trying to impress the new guy and play as good as I can.”
A veteran disagreed.
“Statistical anomaly. I think it’s unfair to both parties to correlate how we’ve played with that transition,” suggested reliever Craig Breslow. “I think we were a better team, we are a better team, than we had showed through the first three and a half or four months of the season. At some point, that was going to catch up to us.”
The performance with Lovullo at the helm is a more delicate and complicated issue, “the elephant in the room” according to one major league source.
Perhaps there are specific elements of Lovullo’s style – such as letting starters work through early jams, or encouraging hitters to look to break games open instead of playing for one run – that have resonated. Perhaps his history as a standout minor league manager has struck the right note for the young players who are trying to make their marks. Or perhaps the strong performances are more a response to the general notion of change rather than to Lovullo individually.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence – maybe it was just Jackie Bradley Jr.’s time, for instance. Maybe it’s just that Lovullo, in contrast to Farrell, has managed a team on which the two players who grade (by WAR) as the worst in the majors haven’t been lineup staples. Still, it is telling that the front office has stopped short of a clear declaration that Farrell – who is about to start his last of three chemotherapy rounds – will be back as manager when he returns to health, leaving the strongest assertions about Farrell’s place going forward to Lovullo.
“To me there is really no managerial situation,” Lovullo said. “John Farrell is the manager of this team, I’m just here until he gets better.”
Square peg removed from round hole
Aug. 26: The end of the Hanley Ramirez outfield experiment
On Aug. 25, the Red Sox announced that Ramirez would start working at first base with an eye toward a possible move there by the end of the season. Ramirez played that night in left field in a 5-4 loss to the White Sox, and hasn’t spent a day in left since. (Ramirez served as designated hitter on Aug. 26 and has been sidelined since by a shoulder injury.)
On Sept. 1, Lovullo made it official: The Red Sox did not plan to have Ramirez play outfield again in 2015. Thus ended a failed experiment whose harm extended beyond the field. Ramirez was, of course, a disaster in left, exceeding any worst-case assumptions. When it signed him, the team hoped he would be serviceable in left for perhaps a season or two, then transition to first base or DH.
But serviceable never happened. At a time when a staff expected to produce tons of ground balls instead ended up having a bunch of pitches belted in the air, the consequences of Ramirez’s deficiencies were severe.
Yet the ripples from Ramirez’s defensive struggles had more far-reaching implications, straining clubhouse relations between Ramirez and the coaching staff due to his unwillingness to work to improve. That dynamic contributed to Ramirez being “ostracized” from his teammates, in the words of one source familiar with the situation.
Cherington talked with the coaches frequently, but tried to avoid intervening directly, wanting to avoid a situation that would result in a key player trying to bypass the staff whenever an issue emerged.
The staff, meanwhile, felt a bit trapped. A player signed to a four-year, $88 million deal wasn’t going to be benched; DH, probably his ideal position given Ramirez’s love of hitting, wasn’t available; and Ramirez couldn’t play first unless Napoli was traded.
The tension was palpable and counterproductive.
“Championship teams don’t have that,” said one major league source familiar with the dynamic. By the time Napoli was dealt, Sox officials felt that it was too late to change positional course with Ramirez. All parties agreed the move to first base would be an offseason subject.
But the shift to Dombrowski accelerated the timetable. With a new voice willing to state the obvious – Ramirez wasn’t an adequate left fielder – and no prior history with Ramirez, Dombrowski could commit to an immediate move, diluting a clot of tension that had restricted the Sox for much of the year.
Meanwhile, the removal of Ramirez at a time when Pablo Sandoval’s playing time also started to diminish transformed the club from one that was plodding to one that was athletic and exciting. The combination of Betts, Bradley, and Castillo in the outfield, with Brock Holt joining the mix when not taking the place of Sandoval, the ongoing growth of Bogaerts, and the positional upgrade offered at first by Shaw over Napoli changed the complexion of the 2015 Sox.
Suddenly, one of the worst defensive teams in baseball began swooping all over the field. The pitchers could operate with far greater confidence, and less frustration.
“There were no more of those moments where, ‘Uh, maybe that ball could have been caught or should have been caught,’” said Lovullo. “We can all see it from our vantage point. We see it the same way the fans do, that things started to really blend together from a pitching and defense standpoint.”
With improved defense came an environment where members of the pitching staff who struggled or were transitioning – Porcello, Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez, Owens – could all take leaps forward, aided by game plans that emphasized their strengths rather than becoming distracted by efforts to exploit opposing hitters’ weaknesses.
Sox starters entered Tuesday leading the majors with a 2.80 ERA since Aug. 18; no other team was within a half-run in that time. Whereas the Sox had allowed an A.L.-worst 4.9 runs per game through Aug. 25, they’ve yielded just 3.7 since Aug. 26.
“For a while, I felt like we’d go out and we’d pitch two really good games and then we’d have an abomination of a bad game,” said pitching coach Carl Willis. “Beginning in early-August, mid-August, the consistency [improved] more than anything.”
The offense, too, has surged, with Bogaerts and Betts continuing to elevate their games, with contributions coming from other young players, and with Ortiz looming as a wrecking ball in the middle of the order.
The Sox have scored 5.2 runs per game since Aug. 18, up from 4.5 prior to that point.
The results have been better, and the energy and attitude of a mid-year overhaul has been evident. That offers no guarantees beyond the final weeks of the 2015 season, but at the least, a team that had lapsed into near-despondency has a very clear vision.
“I’m excited about the way things are looking,” said Ortiz. “I’ve experienced some really good times. I think we’re going to hit the jackpot for next year for us to be in great shape.”
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