Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Historic Weekend in a Historic Season

Or "an" historic season.  I suppose that the choice of indefinite article is flexible, depending on how much you want to sound like a 1950s-era British television commentator.

The season, of course, is the baseball season, specifically that of the Boston Red Sox, whom I follow with an acute passion that has no anchor in geography whatsoever.  As I've noted a few times, I am certainly not a New Englander, and can trace that acute passion back to age three or four, several years before I first saw them live (in 1959, on the road) and 15 years before I was even in Boston.

I was 53 when they finally won a world championship in my lifetime -- their previous five had been in the early 20th Century; my father lived through four Red Sox championship seasons, but unlike the three I have experienced in the last 14 years, his four spanned 91 years, bracketed by the 1916 and 2007 seasons.

This year, however, is a different experience.

Aaron Boone, the manager of the hated and detested New York Yankees, recently commented that, in so many words, he would look up at the scoreboard and the Red Sox "never lose."  That was borne out rather elegantly this past weekend, when the two teams met head to head in a four-game series at Fenway Park.

Boston won all four games, including one in which they handily defeated the Yankees' ace starting pitcher, and the last, in which New York blew a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and lost it in the tenth.  When the dust had settled, a Yankee team that had played, at this writing, to an outstanding .625 winning percentage in an excellent year, was sitting nine and a half games behind Boston.

The Red Sox started 2018 by losing the opening game (of course), before winning the next nine straight and 17 of the next 18.  They have lost so infrequently that:

- They went 56-29 in their first 85 games, and then started a ten-game winning streak
- In their worst ten-game stretch, in April, they still won four games
- They have lost only as many as three straight games (in that 4-6 run in April), and only once
- They have had separate runs of 17-2, 15-2, and 14-4, their current streak.

They are doing this with a manager, Alex Cora, who never managed in the major leagues before this year, and who has rather evidently made some moves that, to be polite, are a part of his learning curve -- learning that it is indeed OK to pinch-hit once in a while, for example.

I suppose that the forecasters thought that the Red Sox would have a pretty good season, but I'd assume from brief research that even the computers were maxing Boston out at perhaps 90-92 wins, even after winning the Eastern Division the past two years.  As of now, they are projected at 108 wins, which would be a franchise record.

So wha' happened?

My take -- and yes, everyone has opinions, but I've thought this through over a number of years -- is that the optimal situation for a club is not so much when it has a well-stocked farm system, but rather, in the first five years after a wave of talent emerges from that farm system simultaneously, or at least within that five-year window.

This happens only occasionally, because phenoms rising from the minors do not pan out nearly as often as teams would wish.  When it happens to teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, with very low revenues, those young teams don't stay together but are traded off before their salary demands make them impossible to retain.

The Rays of 2008 went to the World Series with Evan Longoria (age 22), B.J. Upton (23), Carl Crawford (26) and Dioner Navarro (24) all early in what would be long careers, and really leveraged a pitching staff with James Shields (26), Andy Sonnanstine (25), and Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza (all 24).  Nine years later, most of those players are still in the majors -- but none of them Rays.

Boston, on the other hand, with the revenues to retain players and complement them with a free agent here and there, has no fewer than six of their regular lineup positions manned by players from their own farm system who are in no more than their fifth big-league season -- Jackie Bradley (28), Christian Vazquez (27), Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts (both 25), Andrew Benintendi (23) and Rafael Devers (21).

The fact that all these players are approaching their peak performance years (age 26-29) roughly together is the real key here.  Teammates who are going down the path with you for multiple years constitute a team.  Teammates who have serious talent -- Betts is an MVP candidate, the others excellent in multiple facets of the game -- and can grow for multiple years, produce winning teams.

The major-league record for wins in a season is 116, set by the Seattle Mariners of 2001, before crashing and burning in the playoffs.  That team seemed never to lose, save a four-game losing streak near the end of the season -- and, of course, the playoffs.

This one, which overcame a two-run deficit to beat Toronto with a 10th-inning rally last night, indeed never seems to lose.  But unlike late-20th Century Boston teams that faded late, this one seems to have not only the sustaining power to complete the season on a high in 2018, but to stay together and succeed for several years.

I can live with that.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

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