With the release of the movie “Moneyball” and the Oakland Athletics’ struggles in recent years, new “champions” for statistical analysis on how baseball teams should be run have emerged in the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. Statisically, the Red Sox (as well as the AL East Champion New York Yankees) were favored, though not heavily, over the Tampa Bay Rays in the preseason. In addition, in terms of Pythagorean Winning Percentage which Red Sox analyst Bill James popularized, the Red Sox performed better in 2011 than the Rays, having outscored their opponents more than the Rays did (138 to 98).
Yet, one of the neat features of baseball is that whenever you think you’ve seen everything in baseball and analyzed that “everything” down to its minutae, there’s always something new event to surprise you. The epic, historic, traumatic, dramatic (and every other adjective you deem appropriate based on your fan affiliation) collapse of the Boston Red Sox in the American League Wild Card race to the Tampa Bay Rays concluded a month of flailing and failing for the Red Sox faithful. Statistically, it was virtually impossible. Turns out, “virtually” does not equal “actually”. As a kicker, the turnaround also makes for a neat looking graph too.
Consider in the course of the Red Sox collapse, the Red Sox “featured” a 7-20 record in September, the Rays pulled off some magic of their own. On September 6th, the Rays had a 0.6% chance of making the playoffs as the Red Sox held an eight game lead in the wild card. As the Red Sox slumped in september, the Rays went 17-10 in September, even managing to turn a triple play during the hot streak. Then on September 28th, the Rays clinched the Wild Card by overcoming a 7-0 deficit in their game with the Yankees as the Red Sox lost to the Orioles.
As Jack Moore of FanGraphs shows (and writes about in minute-by-minute detail), just within that last day, the playoff odds swung back and forth not just once, but twice like a fall breeze. Then the leaves settled and the Rays were in the playoffs.
The Red Sox, despite the fifth-best record in the American League, found themselves shaken. Long-time manager Terry Francona and the Red Sox parted ways (or politely ousted) as the Red Sox ownership and media tried to come to terms with what had happened. Some, such as Gordon Edes from ESPN, suggest that Francona had lost control of his clubhouse and that a “new” voice was needed. It appears the players were more interested in arguing over who could drink beer during ballgames than staying prepared for games. Other players, such as ex-Ray Carl Crawford, were unproductive and in some aspects, symbolic of the Red Sox collapse as the Orioles Robert Andino’s game-winning hit slipped out of Crawford’s glove to close out the Red Sox season. David Ortiz, seen as a leader (and often a mouthpiece to the media about all Bostonian baseball things) felt that “there were certain things in the clubhouse that no one can control”. His only feeling towards Francona besides being “fine with Tito” was reminiscing on when Francona had benched him in 2010. With David Ortiz’s voice catching most of the media attention, ownership’s voice and players shocked and saddened after the fact, Edes wondered if “an inmates-running-the-asylum environment” caused things to spiral out-of-hand.
The playoff-bound Rays however are now rejoicing. Before the 2011 season, longtime Rays Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza had left the team and the Rays had 25 new players report to their spring training camp. Though the Rays were defending their 2010 AL East championship and had, in the eyes of executive vice president Andrew Friedman “As much physical talent in this camp as he ever had”, and an effort was made to build team chemistry. With some jokes sprinkled in here and there and members of the front office joining manager Joe Maddon on the field, a “light mood in the clubhouse with constant team-building moments” was encouraged. In the words of ex-Red Sox turned Ray Johnny Damon “We’re here to cause no trouble — we’re not here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle, but we’re here to cause no trouble. But it’s good everyone has the same common goal.” Not everything worked out for the new Rays, however. Not everything worked out for the Rays, even among the Red Sox imports. Five games into the Rays season, ex-Red Sox Manny Ramirez abruptly retired before he was suspended for 100 games for failing a second drug test. Yet, the Rays kept on producing. Except for a poor 11-15 record in July, the Rays played solidly all year coupled with a scorching 18-10 August and their blazing 17-10 September that enabled them to overtake the Red Sox.
Was it talent, luck, or chemistry that made the difference between the Red Sox and Rays?
Stay tuned for Part 2 as we try to untangle (and maybe learn) from this conundrum a bit.