The Keep Calm and Carry On meme is pretty played out at this point. You can be forgiven if you’re tired of seeing its many iterations adorning every corner of the internet.
Yet that message was, essentially, what John Henry relayed to all of what remains of Red Sox Nation on Tuesday afternoon. And while the sentiment may not feel satisfying given the justifiable frustration built on 200-plus games of crappy baseball, Henry is probably right in his decision to stay the course.
Still, John Henry is a baseball owner who needed to hold a press conference in June. That is never a good sign.
The message Henry delivered was clear, it was fair and it was reasoned. But there’s a real feeling, thanks to Boston’s dismal 2012, dismal 2014 and dismal start to 2015, that this is the last time Henry will be able to hold a press conference like this without disrupting the status quo. In Boston, the good will you generate with a World Series win doesn’t last past a season or two: at least not when your campaigns that don’t end in championships are this hard to watch.
John Henry sounds like a man who knows that, and while he did his best to talk Red Sox fans off the ledge, he left just enough room for himself to effect change on a massive scale without seeming like a hypocrite if things don’t turn around.
If you missed Henry’s press conference, his points are best summed up by this tweet from the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton:
Takeaways from Henry: pic.twitter.com/KOIIiThvbo
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) June 2, 2015
Let’s start, then, with the first point. On the one hand, Henry gave a very vocal, very pointed defense of John Farrell and Ben Cherington, who have both come under fire in recent weeks as the Red Sox have stumbled to their present 22-29 record. Henry did not need to give such a vote of confidence to these two men.
On the other hand … what’s he going to say? Leaving Cherington and Farrell twisting in the wind does nothing if Henry plans on letting them finish out the season, and quite frankly, there’s little reason to believe that their dismissals would lead to improved performance on the field.
Yes, there’s the sweeping notion that change is better than complacency, and one can understand the argument that Farrell’s “message isn’t being heard” by a group of veterans with whom he won the World Series 19 months ago. But we can’t be sure that “shaking things up” would do much of anything. The Red Sox have already attempted to “shake things up” by firing Juan Nieves, changing the batting order, sending Justin Masterson to Siberia, etc. The pitching has generally been a little better since, but the Red Sox as a team have not.
Farrell isn’t a great in-game tactician. Cherington gambled when he built this rotation. We knew these things four months ago, and nothing has changed. The former can be fixed in-season, but in the grand scheme of things probably isn’t that important. The latter matters a lot, but firing Cherington in-season won’t change what’s been done. Henry knows this, even if the majority of Red Sox fans don’t want to hear it. His defense of his GM and his manager makes sense.
Let’s move on to points two and four, which are connected: the offense needs to change its approach, but it’s far more talented than it’s showed to this point. Since Henry and co. took over the Red Sox, they’ve built their offense around patience and power, grinding out at-bats against starters and feasting on the soft underbelly that middle relievers often represent.
This year, Mike Napoli and David Ortiz are both within the top-10 in the league in pitches per plate appearance, with Mookie Betts, ranking at 12 and Dustin Pedroia at 35. It’s a patient offense, ranking first in the league in P/PA, tied with the Chicago Cubs, at a neat 4.00.
Yet as of Henry’s press conference, that patience had translated to just 3.82 runs per game — “good” for just 25th in the league — and while Boston is fourth in walks they’re third-to-last in extra-base hits, 22nd in OPS and 21st in TAv. Reaching base is still the most important offensive skill set a player can have, fundamentally, but the Red Sox aren’t putting a ton of runners on base despite their patience (.315 OBP) and they aren’t pushing those runners across.
It’s clear that the front office made a concerted effort to add some selective aggression to the lineup. Pablo Sandoval is not a patient hitter. Rusney Castillo is not a patient hitter. Hanley Ramirez will take a walk, to be sure, but he’s not generally *as* patient as many others in this lineup.
But it’s just not clicking. Sandoval is hitting just .251/.317/.371. Ramirez is hitting .261/.311/.483 and has given back a ton of value on defense. Castillo hasn’t had much of an opportunity to make an impact, but he’s at .233/.258/.322. Add in Ortiz’s and Betts’ struggles and the total lack of production from behind the plate and it’s no wonder Boston isn’t scoring any runs.
Still, Henry’s vote of confidence in the offense is reasonable. They should be better than this, and odds are they will be moving forward. The Red Sox’s .269 BABIP is worst in the league: that should turn around. Ortiz, Sandoval and Ramirez are better hitters than they’ve shown to date, and there’s every reason to believe that Betts, Castillo, Xander Bogaerts and, to some extent, Blake Swihart will improve as the season goes on. They won’t all improve, of course, but if two or three do and Boston’s luck turns around, they’ll score more than four runs a game. Henry told us not to worry about a lot of things last night, yes, but when it comes to the offense, it’s tough to argue with him. This, too, makes sense.
Henry’s third point, however–that the pitching should be good enough–is wishful thinking. We knew coming into the season that Boston’s rotation had the potential to be a sore spot. Rick Porcello and Wade Miley are fine rotation pieces, but viewing them as building blocks was risky. Clay Buchholz has always been an enigma. Joe Kelly showed little to suggest he’d be an effective starter last year, and Masterson showed even less.
Cherington’s inability to assemble an adequate pitching staff for 2015 is his most damning failure to date.
Even with Buchholz, Miley and Porcello all being decent this season (for the most part), this Red Sox rotation and pitching staff in general has been a tire fire. Boston has the third-worst ERA, eighth-worst FIP and ninth-worst DRA in the league. Masterson isn’t a starter anymore, Kelly probably isn’t either and the bullpen looks to have two truly trustworthy figures in Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara.
It’s easy to understand why Cherington made the gamble he made — that a ground-ball-heavy staff would be good enough in front of a solid defense to survive — but it hasn’t worked, and there was always a good chance it wouldn’t work. His inability to assemble an adequate pitching staff for 2015 is his most damning failure to date, and there’s a real chance it will play a major role in preventing this team from reaching the postseason.
Maybe Eduardo Rodriguez will prove to be a savior. Maybe Steven Wright really is Tim Wakefield 2.0. Maybe Brian Johnson or Henry Owens or some pitcher brought in via trade will provide the spark and talent this group needs, but it’s more likely that Cherington came up snake eyes on this bunch. Buchholz, Porcello and Miley are fine members of a starting rotation, but when that rotation’s ceiling is “hopefully league average” to begin with, the architecture is flawed.
Henry knows this, yet he made it clear that the whole organization was on board with this strategy, and he won’t let Cherington take the fall. It’s commendable, even if it doesn’t do much to help the Red Sox or their fans right now.
All of this leads us to Henry’s last point, one that’s equal parts reassuring and terrifying: he looks at this team and he knows that the Red Sox’s master plan may have been wrong. He knows it’s a real possibility that, for the third time in three years, the people he has employed have put or are contributing to an unwatchable product on the field. While he’s doing his best to shield Cherington, Farrell and everyone else involved, John Henry is not a blind man.
Let’s finish, then, with the most interesting quote of the night, for my money. While Henry was steadfast in his support for Cherington saying he’d be “the general manager for a long time,” he did leave himself a back door. Also per the Britton, Henry had this to offer when asked about Boston’s offseason:
It’s a startlingly honest quote in today’s age, and it’s one that suggests to me, at least, that while Henry has Cherington’s back, the Red Sox owner also knows his GM has made some mistakes. He’s aligning himself with Cherington, not leaving him on an island, but I think it leaves just enough room for Henry to swing the axe if the Sox suffer through their third uncompetitive summer in Cherrington’s four years.
Still, firing Cherington right now does nothing. Firing Farrell might do something … but it might not. The Red Sox have played like dog crap and it’s been tough to watch and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for better or worse, this is the team we’ve got for 2015. There is a young nucleus in place with too much promise to gut the team, and the veterans who can be sold off are unlikely to bring much back in return. There’s no fire sale to be had this time, and it’s tough to imagine Cherington shipping off his precious MLB-ready prospects now. Cherington made his bed this offseason, and he made Farrell’s bed and Henry’s bed, and for a little while longer, everyone needs to sleep in it.
To many, the conclusion Henry has drawn isn’t satisfying. But at the end of the day, the Red Sox are just 4.5 games out of an AL East division that’s still very much up for grabs. Despite their horrid play, their horrid luck and some questionable decisions made along the way, they’re right in the thick of this race.
If Boston manages to right the ship and make the playoffs, we’ll look back on this and think, “Henry was right.” Farrell’s job will be safe. Cherington’s job will be safe. We will all be happy.
If this goes further south, if the Red Sox prove uninteresting into July and NESN’s ratings drop, Henry will have more difficult decisions ahead. Boston will not take kindly to three losing seasons in four years, and Henry’s reason and calm will look to many like apathy and disinterest.
Here’s to hoping it doesn’t come to that, for if the Red Sox fail in 2015, John Henry will have to hold a whole new set of press conferences. And Cherington, Farrell and many others may not survive them.
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