Saturday, October 15, 2011


Man Ray hits the bricks to monument a sadist...
the 18th century version of Larry Lucchino.
The theory of why the Red Sox have such dangerous allure is linked--more to the point, joined at the hip--to the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the great Internet pornographic psychologist Gert Martin Hald. Getting, er, deeper into the subject--that is, beyond the virtual unanimity of correlation between males and pornographic imagery--Hald and others note that a sullen exterior seems to induce the greatest amount of "arousal" amongst users.

"There must be an obstacle to overcome," Hald notes, with only the faintest trace of a smirk on his face, "especially for the sizable majority of males who do not possess a natural affinity for seduction rituals." And when one transposes this always-repressed urge to dominate from the sexual arena to other, seemingly less fetishized social rituals, the need to commingle submissiveness with arrogance--a variation of the Gnostic impulse toward ecstatic annihilation--is nothing more or less than an unstoppable force.

Ergo the Red Sox, who continue to occupy a role that is a weird amalgam of the feminine characters in medieval romance, but with a fatal twist. They are not Beatrice buoying a tattered but transformed poet through a mid-life crisis; they are much more like the maidens trapped in the tower whose suitors must climb perilously to their rescue. And all the feudal force of history forces them to climb with one hand tied behind their back: while their romantic-sexillectual zeal inspires their perpetual effort, they fail to take into account the presence of history's cruelest lodestone--the immovable object.

In the medieval tale, the knight only occasionally slays the dragon. And the dragon (best characterized, perhaps, as the force that keeps civilization from achieving utopia) has a nasty tendency to regenerate.

Charlie knows all about free-fallin'...
That immovable object? That won't-stay-dead dragon? Why, who else but the Yankees.

"Reversing the curse," like keeping the dark forces at bay, is only a temporary achievement. What one has to admire in the rich but frightening tapestry of Red Sox history is its instinct for extremity--which is why all this psychosexual connection is not simply a parodic description. Seven years after vanquishing an eighty-six year old dragon, four years after tempting fate by winning a second time, the Sox suddenly discovered that the earth wasn't simply moving under their feet, but that a giant, unavoidable chasm had suddenly, irrevocably, swallowed them up. Before anyone could do anything about it--before they could even sense it happening--they had reached terminal velocity.

Carl Crawford, late September 2011...
So...exactly how did the mashed remains that came to earth with a final, sickening thud in Baltimore just over two weeks ago get that way? Yes--of course--'twas a fall from a great height, but what pushed them out of the airplane? Who snapped the braided hair? Exactly what immovable object knocked them out of the sky?

Mythically, folklorically, it was the Yankees, to be sure (and we'll examine a curious possible "mythic" interpretation regarding that in a bit). But the great feudal pestilence from just under two hundred miles to the southwest had very little presence in the sacher-masochian September that the Red Sox (and their helplessly bound fans) experienced.

While the post-mortemizing has created both a figurative and literal lividity producing a level of corpse discoloration beyond any levels of measurement known either to medical professionals or mass media, what's clear is that the major systemic failure was the starting pitching. "Free-fall" was induced by a 7.08 September ERA from the starters, but what our first post-mortem table (at right) also shows is that the entire staff was infected with a malady best known as "pernicious strike deprivation anemia"--or, in laymen's terms, they all turned into wild-ass lefties. As the table shows, both starters and relievers were afflicted by the disease, but the severity of the problem was located squarely with those (purportedly, at least) beer-swillin', chicken-eatin' starters.

The 118 BBs handed out by the Red Sox staff in September was the highest monthly total in the AL during 2011.

To get a better sense of what was happening throughout the free-fall, we can turn to our old pal QMAX (Quality Matrix). Nothing is better equipped to characterize the shape of performance, and via looking side-by-side at the monthly starting pitching data through the QMAX lens, we'll be able to better see the exact shape of catastrophe.

Our charts compare the starting pitcher performance for the Red Sox in August and September. As you will see in the basic QMAX charts, the comparison couldn't possibly be more stark. The basic QMAX averages confirm that the Red Sox' starters had a control meltdown in September that was even more pronounced than their decline in hit prevention.

In terms of what was happening on a game-in, game-out basis, however, the contrast is much more dramatic. Simply looking at the location of the starts in the QMAX matrix grid (once you're oriented to know that the upper left corner is best, and the lower right corner is worst) will tell you the story.

The September chart is a depiction of the type of catastrophe that is usually reserved for that unfortunate individual who either has a major breakdown in pitching performance from previous years or is someone  pitching for a perennial league doormat or its surrogate, the exceptionally hapless expansion team. What chills the blood here is that this represents the collective efforts of seven pitchers--Josh Beckett, Erik Bedard, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, and Kyle Weiland. It is really hard to get seven guys to pitch this poorly for an entire month. (Consequently, we searched in vain for a group portrait.)

The QMAX range data (at left)--the ones that provide percentages for the key performance areas depicted on the chart--shows that the "hit hard" games more than doubled in September. The loss of anything resembling control also resulted in a radical diminishing of "Tommy John" starts--the boxed area at the lower left of the QMAX chart, the region where pitchers can often be successful in spite of the probabilities inherent in the QMAX data, and where the Sox had a disproportionate number of starts in August. (Usually the highest percentage of "Tommy John" starts in a season for any individual pitcher is around 35%--it's highly odd to see an entire starting staff approach such a percentage, even in only a month's worth of games.)

Andrew Miller, witnessing yet
another unfortunate trajectory...
The Red Sox made a few decisions about their starting staff that look odd in retrospect. No, we're not talking about putting Tim Wakefield in for the injured Daisuke Matsuzaka. The first odd choice came when Clay Buchholz went down; instead of promoting Kevin Millwood, the Sox brought up Andrew Miller, one of their pet reclamation projects. Miller had been pitching well in AAA, but he reverted to his erratic ways once promoted.

Kevin Millwood in Pawtucket: in search of a Margarita
to waste away with...
The Sox were on a roll offensively at this time (they averaged a bit over 6.5 runs/game in July), so having some dike leakage wasn't costing them anything.

At the end of the month, however, they decided that they weren't going to give Millwood a chance at all, despite Miller's inconsistency. They shopped for a veteran starter who would allow them to play hunches with their fifth starter slot, acquiring Bedard from Seattle after a noteworthy volte-face on the A's Rich Harden. Millwood's time limit for promotion to the major leagues as specified in his Red Sox contract expired, and he wound up in Colorado (where he pitched a good bit better than Miller or Wakefield).

Bedard, well-known as a "fragile" pitcher--so much so, in fact, that teammates would caution him from sitting down too quickly in order to ensure that he might not suffer a freak mishap--managed to stay healthy for the month of August; but he put too much "wiggle" into a pitch on September 3rd, and while it didn't shut him down for the rest of the year, it probably should have. His last two starts, in the final grip of terminal velocity, had absolutely no braking effect for the Sox.

Tito: "A little early for that much snow, ain't it?"
Theo: "If we run, only one of us will get buried..."
But let's not get too deep into second-guessing, lest we wind up as sullen as the press, the fans, the owners, and quite probably the players themselves, who can't help but be fed up with being the pseudo-pornographic targets of an outside world fixated on the interminable forensic fetishizing with which the New York-Boston rivalry keeps foul odors flying (no matter how many exterminators are called). Many of them probably wish that they could simply skip town the way that Terry Francona and Theo Epstein are doing.

And, subterranean truth be told, it's probably Theo's fault--not so much for being so overrated, or for any of his actual (and very real) deficiencies. It was the hubris inherent in trying to upend the nature of the universe, baseball division. And that bravado extended all the way to the head-to-head matchups that the Red Sox had against the Yankees during the EJE (for those who've forgotten our fencing forays at the Baseball Think Factory with the potent, potioned, Parsifal-like Red Sox Nation, that's an acronym for the Epstein-James Era, which is now over).

The bruising, brawling yearly head-to-head competition was much closer during the EJE than at any other time in history, and while Theo can take pride in knowing that during his watch the Sox managed to eke out an edge over the Evil Empire (84-82), he might want to ponder the fact that such an occurrence seems likely to be one of the main reasons why the avalanche of misfortune came rumbling down the mountain a good bit ahead of snow season this past September.

The great forces of a mythic universal order, as manifested in the seedy grandeur of a game whose business bloat is at maximum volume level, are making their counter-moves. It is a humbling and wondrous experience, for when it comes, it spares no one. It would be best to keep this in mind, and--despite any and all desires to the contrary--to try to remember (try, try, try) this very cosmic, catastrophic September.