Shortly after their stunning NLDS win over the Phillies, Bexy crowned the Cardinals as the YCPB Team of the Year. Given how the rest of the postseason transpired I can’t really disagree, but at the time I felt that was premature. No one believed in Arizona (heck, I picked them to finish last in my preseason predictions), but at least the NL West is somewhat of a no-man’s land: four different teams have won that division in the last six years, four out of five prior to 2011.
But one team surprised even more the Diamondbacks storming to 94 wins—if there was consensus on anything last winter, it was that the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, and at the very least were going to win the AL East.
The injury bug had hit the Red Sox hard in 2010, but the season was not lost. Clay Buchholz broke out as a top-flight pitcher, and while he probably wasn’t quite 2.33 ERA good, he would serve as a complement to ace Jon Lester, a healthy Josh Beckett, and John Lackey, who was bound to improve after a disappointing first year in Boston. The lineup was losing key cogs in Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, but the front office blunted those losses by trading a bunch of prospects for Adrian Gonzalez, and then surprising everyone by signing Carl Crawford to a huge contract. Gonzalez had been one of the best hitters in the game, playing in 160 or more games for four straight years while putting up a .900 OPS in Petco National Park. Crawford was a slick-fielding speedster with some pop who could be counted on as a stolen base threat to complement Jacoby Ellsbury, who was a huge question mark coming off a lost season that saw him play in only 18 games. The Crawford signing also directly weakened the defending division champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Speaking of the Rays, 2011 was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for them. In addition to losing Crawford, they also lost or traded away their starting first baseman (Peña), shortstop (Bartlett), number 2 starter (Garza), and entire bullpen. James Shields was coming off leading the AL in earned runs allowed, and Ben Zobrist, while still a solid player, had taken a step back after his breakout 2009. Jeremy Hellickson was set to replace Garza, but no one knew how he would do in his first full year in the Bigs, and putting Kyle Farnsworth in the closer role didn’t exactly intimidate opposing teams.
As for the other contender in the AL East, the biggest news of the offseason for the Yankees was not a big name signing, but rather Cliff Lee taking his talents to Philadelphia. After losing Andy Pettitte to retirement, Brian Cashman went dumpster diving, signing Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to Minor League deals which were mocked at the time. While the bullpen looked to be in good shape, the rotation appeared to be CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and a bunch of questions. Those questions intensified when Hughes was placed on the DL with inflammation of the ERA after just three starts.
When the season started, the Red Sox were the team to beat in the American League. All 45 of ESPN’s experts picked the Red Sox to win the East. So did I. So did Bexy. If you made predictions, then in all likelihood, so did you. 33 of those experts had the Sox winning it all, and why not? Tampa had weakened, the Yankees didn’t address their primary offseason need, and by all accounts the Sox had the most complete team in the league. Sox fans were overflowing with confidence, and some media members took to writing insanely hyperbolic articles about how good the team was. (Editor’s note—we will link to that article at every possible opportunity)
I’m sure he has taken a lot of crap about this over the year, but it would be a shame to link to that ESPN piece and not point out Steve Berthiaume’s picks. Houston to win their division? The Dodgers to win the wild card? Philadelphia missing the playoffs entirely? Well done.
And then the season started, and the Red Sox got swept out of Texas with Lester, Lackey, and Buchholz all getting lit up. From there they went to Cleveland, where they were promptly swept again. These were close games though, the final one a 1-0 nailbiter where the only run scored on an 8th inning squeeze play. Nonetheless, they limped into Fenway 0-6, tied with the also-surprising-but-not-quite-as-surprising also 0-6 Tampa Bay Rays. A solid west coast road trip (including a four game sweep in Anaheim) helped stanch the bleeding but they dropped four of five to end April and needed a walkoff single from Crawford to avoid being swept by the Mariners at Fenway on May 1st.
That single brought Crawford’s line up to .168/.215/.238 in 108 plate appearances. Adrian Gonzalez was hitting but had only one home run. The pitching though, was looking up. Lester had shaken off his first start and put together an excellent April, as did Beckett. Lackey, after giving up 15 runs in his first 8.2 innings, allowed just three in his next twenty. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka had a run of 15 scoreless innings.
Starting in May, the offense found its stride. The team OPS jumped 109 points from April to May, another 18 points in June, and peaked in July, when the team as a whole hit .298/.373/.501/.874, roughly equivalent to what Alex Gordon (7th in the AL in bWAR) did over the course of the season. Between May 1st and September 1st, they went 71-38, a 105-win pace, and looked like the team everyone thought they would be back in March.
You all know what happened after that. 7-20. Fried chicken and beer. Robert Bleepin Andino. A collapse for the ages that culminated in the most exciting regular season night of baseball in memory (or most heartbreaking, depending on which side you were on). On September 29th, the team that everyone predicted would win the division easily packed their bags and went home for the winter. Serves us all right for predicting.
For the gory details of the Collapse from the Orioles’ perspective, presented far better than I ever could, see Jon Bernhardt’s terrific series here.
A few random notes on the 2011 Red Sox:
Carl Crawford finished the season at .255/.289/.405 with just 22 unintentional walks. That OBP was fourth worst in the AL. He also only stole 18 bases. According to both baseball-reference and Fangraphs, even his defense was a slight negative this year.
On the flipside, Jacoby Ellsbury hit .321/.376/.552, becoming the first 30-30 player in Red Sox history. This might seem strange, but the Red Sox have never been much of a running team. Between Tris Speaker in 1914 and Johnny Damon in 2002, there were only five individual instances of a Boston player stealing 30 bases, and Tommy Harper’s 17 homers in 1973 were the most of that bunch. Prior to Ellsbury, the closest the Sox had to a 30-30 player was Carl Yastrzemski in 1970, who hit 40 homers and stole 23 bases.
During the Collapse, Boston starters allowed 101 earned runs in 128.1 innings, or a 7.08 ERA. They also lasted less than five innings per start.
Robert Andino drove in just 36 runs all season, tied with Brett Gardner for the fewest among 73 AL qualifiers. 10 of those were against Boston, and nine of those were in the final two weeks of the season.