Never underestimate the importance of motivation in professional sports. We often assume that players with multi-million dollar, guaranteed contracts will do everything in their power to earn that money by producing on the field, but that is not always the case. Despite coming into last season with the best of intentions, the Red Sox were almost immediately deflated by the overall arrogance, ignorance, and smug demeanor of their manager, and their performance suffered as a result.
Sure, there are some new parts in place this year. Yet for every Shane Victorino (batting .350 with three runs and four RBI this year), there is a Mike Napoli, who is now 3-for-19 in his first few games with the Sox. The new additions haven’t turned this thing around, it’s simply a change in Boston’s baseball culture, a culture that used to be, and is now once more, about winning.
Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester started the first two games under Bobby Valentine in 2012, and they combined to surrender nine runs in 11 innings in two losses. This year, the same pitchers gave up three earned runs over 12 innings in their first two starts, as the Sox won both contests.
Overall, the Red Sox pitching staff has allowed 14 earned runs (3.60 ERA) through four games this season. During the first four games last year, many of the same pitchers combined to allow 27 earned runs on their way to a combined 6.75 ERA and a 1-3 start. As you might imagine, the discrepancy between these stats has a lot to do with the fact that the Sox are currently in first place with a 3-1 record, instead of spiraling towards last place like they were last season.
While this is a small sample size, it is certainly not a random turnaround. New manager John Farrell, who spent four years as Red Sox pitching coach from 2007-2010, was instrumental in the development of Buchholz as a young pitcher, as well as the revival of Jon Lester’s career after the starter beat cancer. Now that he has returned to Boston, it is hardly a coincidence that these two strong arms are realizing their potential in the early going.
It’s not just the pitching though, as the Red Sox offense has been markedly better through four games under Farrell. They’re batting .309 with an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .800, and they’ve drawn 19 walks as a team. Again, through four games in 2012, the Sox were batting .257, had an OPS of .692, and drew only 11 free passes.
American League managers have few in-game responsibilities, other than making pitching changes. Those changes, while difficult, are often the watermark for how well a manager performs, because the outcome of those decisions will usually decide close games. During their 69-win season in 2012, Boston posted the third worst record in the American League in games decided by two runs or less. Partially thanks to Bobby Valentine’s poor decision making, but also due to the poisonous atmosphere in the clubhouse that only got worse as the year progressed.
When a manager is willing to throw their players under the bus, as Valentine did to Kevin Youkilis last April, it saps the motivation of the entire team. And when relievers, starters, and batters are unable stay motivated in clutch situations, you lose close games.
The biggest difference between the 2013 and 2012 Red Sox will not be found in the roster’s composition, or the box score, but in the effort that is given by each individual on the team. It seems as though their new skipper has found a way to elicit that effort, and thus far, the results have shown.