The 2017 Red Sox: An unlikely evolution and the 1977 AL East race

It was 40 years ago I first started following the Red Sox intently, and it was a great time if you liked home runs, abusing relievers and ultimate frustration.

The Red Sox won 97 games that summer, hit 213 home runs, and withered, as they did for most of the 86 years after 1918, to the Yankees in September. Red Sox fans pondered hypotheticals in the postseason and rooted for the Royals, who lost the ALCS in a deciding fifth game after the Yankees fell behind two games to one and manager Billy Martin said of Larry Gura, the Royals Game 4 starter, “The only worry I have is that Gura doesn’t get hurt on the way to the ball park, I mean in an accident or anything. Maybe I ought to send a bodyguard to his home.”

Martin wasn’t wrong: Gura gave up six hits and four runs in two innings plus two batters in Game 4; unconvinced, Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog brought Gura back in Game 5 to give up the game-tying hit as the Yankees scored three in the ninth to win the series. The unfortunate Gura, who had a 3.21 ERA in his five other postseason series, had an 18.00 ERA in that one.

Naturally, Red Sox fans rooted for the Dodgers in the World Series, which was another lost cause in a season full of them. The Yankees won the Series, too, beating the Dodgers as Reggie Jackson walked on four pitches and then homered three times on the first pitch in the deciding Game 6. So much for first-pitch strikes.

(On a personal note, 1977 was the summer before my senior year in college, the first of two as it turned out, which perhaps could only be appreciated by Ernie Banks. It was my first summer away from home, and my best friend and I had a house across the main road from a rocky beach which we never saw.  He liked to tell people we were on the Cape, in the same way he told people in Boston he was from Long Island when he grew up in Far Rockaway, which was on the way to Long Island. Our little town was on the way to the Cape and for folks who never came by, that was good enough. We spent most of the summer watching the Red Sox, either in the bleachers at Fenway Park, where the tickets and beer were cheap, or on television, where the sightlines weren’t as good, but the audio, with Dick Stockton and Ken Harrelson, was better. In the 40 years since, I haven’t spent as much time at Fenway than in 1977. But I digress.)

Those 1977 Red Sox are as far removed stylistically from the 2017 Red Sox, who clinched the AL East, as they are by time.

The 1977 Red Sox scored runs in bunches, ran the bases one at a time and had a pitching staff so fractured that reliever Bill Campbell, their major free-agent acquisition of the offseason, led the team in wins, was third in innings pitched (140.1) and made 20 appearances of three innings or more.

They embraced the home run and abhorred left-handed pitching, deigning to carry a lefty reliever in the bullpen even if the Yankees were flush with left-handed hitters — Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Mickey Rivers, who with 22 steals, was best kept off base. (The 1977 Red Sox used four lefty relievers for 23 innings; they gave up 33 hits and 21 runs. The Red Sox traded for Ramon Hernandez, who had a 2.51 ERA in six Pirates season but whose skills had vanished, in May, released him in August, and replaced him with … no one. Apparently, scouting wasn’t what it was today.)

Red Sox power created much euphoria in 1977 — they hit 16 homers in a three-game series vs. the Yankees, including four in the first inning off Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, all of which led Jackson and Martin to bicker and come near blows in the dugout. That led to the biggest dilemma of the 1977 season for Red Sox fans: in a fight between Jackson and Martin, who do you root for?

The 1977 Red Sox hit nine homers in 10 days in two starts against Hall of Famer Jim Palmer; on July 4, shut out for the first four innings, they hit eight homers against the expansion Blue Jays. In the true spirit of the 1977 Red Sox, the eight homers — four in the eighth inning — produced nine runs, though they won 9-6.

Forget about 25 players, 25 cabs symbolizing the Ted Williams Red Sox. Twenty-five homers, 26 runs defined the 1977 Red Sox.

And from June 14-June 24, the 1977 Red Sox hit 33 home runs in 10 games, swept the Yankees, who won 100 games, at Fenway and swept the Orioles, who like the Red Sox won 97 games, at Baltimore. Four times they gave up 10 or more runs — and still won.

They built a five-game lead during the home run binge, but it didn’t last. The Yankees swept them — the Sox had a 5-3 lead in the opener in the last game of the 33 home run stretch with two outs in the ninth and nobody on when Campbell gave up a triple and homer — and the Red Sox were in first for the final time on Aug. 22. But they lost seven in a row, and despite a 22-8 September, never got close than one-and-a-half games.

Like a lot of Red Sox teams, if they didn’t homer, they didn’t get many runs. They scored in double figures 18 times, but were shut out six times.

The 1977 Red Sox had five players — Jim Rice (39), George Scott (33), Butch Hobson (30), Carl Yastzemski (28) and Carlton Fisk (26) — hit 25 homers or more, and Dwight Evans and Bernie Carbo, who split right field, combined for 29 more,  each slugging .522 or better.

The 1977 Red Sox also had three infielders commit 23 errors or more (shortstop Rick Burleson and first baseman Scott, 24; third baseman Hobson 23) and two players ground into 21 double plays or more (Scott, 24; Rice, 21). By comparison no Yankee committed more than Buck Dent’s 18 errors, and only one grounded into more than 20 DPs.

And the 1977 Red Sox had one pitcher their manager trusted, partly because of a generation gap, and partly because of their ordinary performance. The Red Sox spent a million dollars to sign Campbell for five years, which doesn’t cover the minimum for two years now. But Don Zimmer — who famously feuded with Ferguson Jenkins and Bill Lee, or two fifths of his rotation, and Jim Willoughby, who might have been the hero of the ’75 Series had Darrell Johnson not removed him from Game 7 — tried to get the Red Sox’s money’s worth in one year. Campbell pitched 140 innings and saved 31 games with a 2.96 ERA; over the next four years he pitched 205 innings, saved 20 games and had a 3.81 ERA.

Campbell’s overuse wasn’t unusual for the era. Martin pitched Sparky Lyle a career-high 137 innings that year and Lyle saved 26 games, had a 2.17 ERA and won the Cy Young Award. For the rest of Lyle’s career, his 3.87 ERA was about a run higher than his career 2.88. Remember that the next time someone claims pitch counts and protecting pitchers are hurting the game. Maybe it is in their eyes. But it’s not hurting careers the way overuse used to.

(The New York Times had a Sunday magazine piece this week on the Dodgers and reliever Kenley Jansen. They lost me at the introduction: “Managers rarely use their closers — often the most dominant pitchers in baseball — for more than a few outs at the end of the game. Is that beginning to change?” If only it had said change back. To win the 1977 ALCS, Lyle pitched 5.1 shutout innings in Game 4, the first 4.1 with a one-run lead, and came back the next night to get the last four outs of Game 5. Then after a night off, he pitched 3.2 innings after allowing the tying run to win Game 1 of the World Series in 12 innings. Three games, four days, 10.1 innings. There was a time relievers got more than a few outs.)

The 2017 Red Sox  won the AL East on speed, defense, left-handed pitching (four of their five starters until David Price was hurt), bullpen depth and the occasional home run. They play more like the 1977 Yankees than the 1977 Red Sox; in fact they play more like the 1965 Dodgers, who hit 78 home runs and stole 192 bases, than the 1977 Red Sox.

Consider how the Red Sox went 8-1 on a nine-game road trip which began with the Red Sox three games ahead, but often feeling like they were chasing the Yankees, who bludgeoned the Orioles 30-10 in their first three games and the Twins 18-6 in three straight, rather than vice versa.

  • Game 1 — Red Sox 13, Rays 6 (15): Red Sox score three times in the top of the ninth, helped by an error, against saves leader Alex Colome, take the lead in the 14th only to lose it, and then two more Rays errors lead to a seven-run 15th. After an atypical Chris Sale start, the bullpen allows just two runs in 9.1 innings. Winning difference: Bullpen, defense.
  • Game 2 — Red Sox 3, Rays 1: 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello pitches like it and Mookie Betts doubles in a run after home-plate ump Jeff Nelson misses a third strike call. Winning difference: Starting pitching.
  • Game 4 — Red Sox 10, Orioles 8 (11): Red Sox fall behind 5-0 and 6-1 before scoring six runs in the fifth, tie it again in the seventh on a Xander Bogaerts homer, then score twice in the 11th on an Andrew Benetendi single after loading the bases on three walks, the last one to Tzu-Wei Lin, a 23-year-old with 66 big-league plate appearances. Carson Smith, pitching in his seventh game in two years, saves it with a 1-2-3 11th against the middle of the Orioles lineup; Smith is the ninth Red Sox reliever to pitch after starter Doug Fister was knocked out in the third. Winning difference: Depth.
  • Game 5 — Red Sox 1, Orioles 0 (11): Benintendi throws Manny Machado out at the plate in the third, Jackie Bradley leaps over the fence to take a home run away from Chris Davis in the fifth and the Red Sox score in the 11th on a wild pitch. Winning difference: Defense.
  • Game 6 — Red Sox 9, Orioles 0: The most one-sided of the eight wins. Betts and Devin Marrero homer and Chris Sale fans 13, including his 300th of the season. Winning difference: Starting pitching, power.
  • Game 7 — Red Sox 5, Reds 4: Porcello gives up a grand slam to Scooter Gennett in the first, but Reds don’t score again. Rafael Devers hits a three-run homer to take the lead in the fifth, and David Price gets seven outs to go from Porcello to two outs in the seventh. Winning difference: Bullpen.
  • Game 8 — Red Sox 5, Reds 0: The second of two unanimous decisions in the eight wins. Eduardo Rodriguez throws a three-hitter over 7.2 innings, and Mitch Moreland hits a three-run homer in the sixth. Winning difference: Starting pitching.
  • Game 9 — Red Sox 5, Reds 4: Mookie Betts ties the game with a bases-loaded double in the eighth and then scores the winning run from second on an infield single. Five relievers throw 3.2 hitless innings. Winning difference: Baserunning, bullpen.

Eight wins, and power was a big contributor to only one.

Even in the season’s final week, during a dreary 2-5 homestand, speed contributed to the two wins. Three homers powered a 10-7 win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, but the Red Sox took the lead when Xander Bogaerts scored from first on Dustin Pedroia’s hit-and-run single, softly served on the ground into right-center field and rolling gently as Bogaerts dragged his left hand across the plate ahead of Russell Martin’s tag; in the clincher on Saturday, Benintendi and Betts pulled off a double steal ahead of Mitch Moreland’s double.

These aren’t Ted Williams’ Red Sox. Maybe Tris Speaker’s.

The 1977 Red Sox’s 213 home runs were 73 above the MLB team average of 140, and they had two players — Rice tied for third and Scott tied for eighth — in the top 10 in home runs.

The 2017 Red Sox were 27th in MLB with 168 homers, 36 less than the team average of 204, and had only one regular — Betts — with an OPS above .800, and that just barely at .803. Betts’ 24 homers led the Red Sox, but were tied for 75th in MLB (the A’s Matt Olson hit 24 homers in 189 at-bats; Mookie hit his in 628). Betts’ .803 OPS, which led the Red Sox, was 66th. Yet his 6.4 WAR, which led the Red Sox, was ninth in MLB.

Maybe, as the 1977 Red Sox learned the hard way, there’s something to be said for pitching, baserunning and defense.

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