Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: 2014 Red Sox are proving they are human
SO MANY of the ins and outs and intricacies of the game can be so readily explained by any number of metrics, the simplest of all factors is sometimes overlooked, or downplayed, or even forgotten altogether.
By now we've spent the better part of three months looking for answers: Why did the Red Sox start so slowly? Why have they struggled so much to score runs? Why haven't some players been able to replicate their heroics of yesteryear? Why has Xander Bogaerts been in such a tailspin lately? Why are there so many questions now surrounding a team that seemed to have a solution for everything a season ago?
Theories abound, built mostly around stats, and trends, and track records that attempt to rationalize the results. But ultimately what might be killing the 2014 Red Sox more than anything is the most uncontrollable, unquantifiable, intangible aspect of them all: the human element.
It's positive powers were on full display around here last season, when a team built around veterans on play-to-prove-it deals came in with the collective mindset to quiet the conventional thinkers who picked against them. They started hot, found a galvanizing rally point after the Boston Marathon bombings, built a belief in one another - and soon enough they were a wagon full of confident guys who loved playing with (and for) each other.
There was no situation too big, though just as importantly there was no situation too small. They took every challenge seriously, and approached everything with the attitude of a champion. Talent helped, too, but what separated that team was its hunger and its air of purpose.
So perhaps we overrated what this team would become in the wake of a World Series win that - only naturally - satiated that starving desire. No longer were the Sox the picked-against underdogs. No longer were they a team full of veterans looking to finally taste champagne after a decade of disappointment, surrounded by players looking to assert that Bobby Valentine was the problem in 2012.
They were the favorites, the fat cats, the accomplished. And thus maybe what we're seeing now is the human element again at play, except in a very different way.
Go back to spring training. It was a struggle for the Sox, who finished with one of the worst records in the Grapefruit League. That's no big deal, obviously, but it starts to begin looking like the team might not have arrived ready to go when it's late May and it still hasn't won three straight games while wallowing well below .500.
Much of the blame for that standing was centered on the club's struggles to seize opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position. Some of the stat-minded experts would say those chances are just another at-bat, and success or failure is as likely for a given player as it would be in any at-bat - but, again, this is ignoring the human element.
With men in scoring position, particularly with two outs, there is added pressure. And when the team as a whole is failing to take advantage of these situations, and the frustration mounts, that pressure is even further intensified by the feeling that someone has to stop the skid. By the time the skid lasts for weeks and months, instead of innings, the weight of it really starts to wear on a team mentally.
As it does, confidence is lost. Swagger stops so easily covering up for deficiencies. The cycle becomes hard to break, which could be why it's been so tough for the Sox to get on the run they really need to put together to get themselves on the right side of things, and eventually to get back in the race.
Individually, we've seen the human element at play, too. Previously fighting for his baseball life, Daniel Nava opened the year as the Red Sox leadoff hitter and ingrained as a starter, and looked like a different hitter. It's easy to say moving 60 feet to the right defensively shouldn't affect Bogaerts' bat, but he has struggled since moving from shortstop to third base.
David Ortiz signed a multi-year contract extension before the season, then began Saturday with an on-base plus slugging 118 points lower than it's been since 2010. Jon Lester's stuff remains the same, but he (and Jake Peavy) is a different pitcher when throwing to A.J. Pierzynski instead of David Ross.
Because they're the best in the world, we sometimes forget that players are people, too. They're emotional. They're habitual. They're better when they're motivated. They're worse when winning has dulled their edge.
That's a big reason why no team has repeated as World Series champion since the Yankees did it in 2000. Why the Giants won it all in 2010, missed the playoffs in 2011, then won it again in 2012, but finished last in 2013, and now look like contenders again in 2014.
And why the only fix for these Red Sox might be somehow turning them into robots - because otherwise the human element will always be in play, and shouldn't be underestimated.
When Major league baseball announces its All-Star rosters tonight, John Farrell's American League team should have Lester and Koji Uehara among its 13 pitchers. And Ortiz is likely to be there, too, even if he's in the midst of a down season by his standards.
But that might be it for the Sox. Dustin Pedroia has been barely above average offensively, and while Mike Napoli is having a decent season, there are at least three first basemen more deserving. John Lackey might be a fringe candidate, too, though entering Saturday there were 23 AL starters who had a better earned run average.
Beyond that, Brock Holt may be Boston's most deserving player - and his versatility would make him quite useful in a game with so many moving pieces - but he has only been a regular for about six weeks.
Stat of the week: On paper, the Red Sox' upcoming stretch of seven games against the White Sox and Astros looks to be a chance to gain ground before the All-Star break - but Boston is just 16-18 against losing teams this season, third-worst in the AL and fifth-worst in baseball.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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