Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Red Sox are the Orioles

Boston sportswriters are fond of saying that Theo Epstein and Terry Francona have adopted the new stats-loving Moneyball approach, a la Michael Lewis' book, and that this is the new wave of baseball philosophy. To that I say "Bullshit". You know what philosophy the Red Sox wisely copied to elevate them to their current spot of baseball royalty? It's not new. The Baltimore Orioles used the exact same strategy between 1966 and 1983 and they did it so well it brought them ten American League Championships and three World Series titles. Earl Weaver summaried it in five words: "Pitching, defense, three run homers". The overarching theory is called "The Oriole Way", but essentially it says that baseball is about fundamentals. Perfect them and repeat them, and you win. Pitching and defense don't go into prolonged slumps. Don't give up outs on either offense or defense. Get people on base (we now call this on base percentage) and have a big bopper who can knock them all in.

This is EXACTLY what the Red Sox have been preaching since 2003. The only difference is that today there are numbers to back up what Earl Weaver could have told you back when Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were in office.

PITCHING: The O's had those terrifying pitching staffs. The aces just kept coming. Depending on the year, they could throw Palmer, Martinez, Boddicker, Flanagan or Mike Mussina at you. (one of my favorite trivia questions is "Who was the last team to have 4 20-game winners on their staff?". Answer at the end of this post) In 2004, Boston's Big Three was Pedro, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe. This year, it's Beckett, Lester and Matsuzaka. Now, in the advent of the bullpen led by closer, Boston stretches the wealth into Okajima, Delcarmen and Saito, leading to Papelbon. The closer as we know it didn't exist in the Oriole Years, but they did have Eddie Watt, Grant Jackson and Tippy Martinez, who were all pretty good.

DEFENSE: In the 70's, the O's infield defense was hands down the best in all of baseball. Names like Grich, Belanger, Brooks Robinson meant no errors, ever. This year, Boston's infield has gold glovers at first (Youkilis), second (Pedroia) and third (Lowell) with a very good young talent in Jed Lowrie at short. Oh, and our catcher's pretty good defensively, too. Baltimore's outfield was as good as their infield: Blair, Bumbry, Robinson, Singleton. In 2008, it's Bay, Ellsbury and Drew, which will be as good as any defensive outfield in the league. Defense saves runs and pitchers, shortens innings, and wins games. Earl Weaver knew it, and so does Terry Francona.

THREE RUN HOMERS: The vintage O's could pound you into submission. Frank Robinson begat Boog Powell, who begat Lee May, who begat some dude named Ripken. He was okay, I guess. The anchor of the 2003-2008 Red Sox lineup was Ortiz and Ramirez, which may go down as the most fearsome 1-2 combination of all time.

Going into Opening Day, the only common complaint with this year's Red Sox is that they may be short of power. Youkilis, Pedroia and Bay have pop, but the pivot point is David Ortiz, and everyone believes that without a fearsome bat like Manny behind him, the Red Sox are beatable. That was the whole idea behind signing Mark Teixiera. I'm not so worried, because since the Sox didn't sign Teixiera, and have continued to stockpile talent in the minors, we're going to be in a commanding position to pick up the monster bat we need at the trading deadline. That bat might be named Ordonez or Cabrera or Holliday, but he's going to be there, and we're going to be a position to grab him if we need. That could make the difference.

What I believe sets Boston apart this year is one element. We have what nobody else in baseball has but everyone needs: outstanding pitching depth. We've got 7 legitimate starting pitchers, and we've stockpiled them like cans of soup at your local Stop & Shop. We only really need two months of decent appearances out of Brad Penny, who don't forget, is 38-22 since 2006, was a dominant All Star game starter, and if he's healthy, could be one hell of a horse for a #5 starter. In June, we can trot out guaranteed first ballot hall of famer John Smoltz. And waiting in the wings are Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, with fireballing Daniel Bard itching to come up as well. This is damn good insurance in case Beckett has a blister, Wakefield becomes ineffective or Dice K's arm falls off after a 450 pitch start against the Yankees.

Boston has all the tools this year. What we don't and can't know is how healthy everyone will be. JD Drew is superb when healthy, but he's only superb when healthy, so there's that. We all assume 2008 was only an aberration for Big Papi, but we just don't know. Mike Lowell remains a post-surgical question mark, and as painful as it is, we still might have to resign ourselves to Jason Varitek continuing to be an offensive black hole in the lineup. Then again, Mark Belanger had a lifetime batting average of .228. That was ok because he was the greatest defensive shortstop of his day. The O's did well enough with Belanger hitting ninth in the lineup, and I think we'll be fine with Captain Tek hitting ninth, too.

If you ask Earl Weaver, I'd bet he'd agree.

[Trivia Answer: The 1971 Baltimore Orioles: Dave McNally (21-5), Mike Cuellar (20-9), Jim Palmer (20-9), Pat Dobson (20-8)]

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