When Jacoby Ellsbury got called up in September of 2007, the Red Sox added his speed to a club that already boasted the not-to-shabby wheels of Coco Crisp and Julio Lugo. For a while, it seemed like the Red Sox could legitimately run, possibly for the first time in the memory of any living Sox fan. While they didn’t rack up many total steals, comparatively, it seemed like they were doing the smart thing and focusing on situational stealing — in both 07 and 08, they ranked in the top 5 teams in stolen base percentage.
But so far this season, there’s been blood on the basepaths. Boston ranks 18th in the majors in SB%. Dustin Pedroia, who doesn’t have great speed but who has typically been a very savvy base-stealer, has been caught 4 times and called safe just 10. Nick Green and J.D. Drew have been safe just once apiece, but caught thrice and twice, respectively. And David Ortiz, inexplicably, has been caught twice. I call this inexplicable not because he was caught, but because he was running at all in the first place.
Tonight we witnessed another prime example: Mike Lowell draws a walk off of A.J. Burnett in the bottom of the third, with the Red Sox ahead 4-0. With one out and Lowell on first, Varitek comes to the plate. On a 2-1 count, Lowell takes off for second base. Varitek stands at the plate looking dumbfounded. When Posada recovers from his initial shock, he fires the ball to second and the lead-footed Lowell is out by a country mile.
How did this happen? Does a seasoned veteran like Mike Lowell — who no doubt has a good idea of exactly how slow he is — just take off on his own? If not, what sort of manager decides to send him? Announcers Don Orsillo and Dennis Eckersley (who, by the way, will make a thrilling and hilarious replacement for Joe Morgan one day, please God) can only speculate that Jason Varitek missed the hit-and-run sign. Sure enough, when Tek eventually makes his way back to the dugout (after drawing a walk and ultimately scoring), the first word out of his mouth is, “Sorry.”
But is it really the Captain’s fault that he missed that sign? If I were in his shoes, I’d be standing there thinking, “Did they just put a hit-and-run on with Lowell on first? Nah. No way. My eyes must have tricked me.” And I’d make a mental note to borrow Big Papi’s eye drops when I got back to the dugout.
How slow is Mike Lowell? He has the worst EQBRR on the team, ringing in at -1.77. Don’t worry though — that’s probably a fluke. Flukily good, that is. Because last year he was an abysmal -5.75. And before you argue that that was just his gimp-tastic hip talking, the year before, the season he was voted World Series MVP, he rated a horrifying -6.21.
If you’re Terry Francona, why take a chance that the salt-and-pepper haired, 35-year old Lowell hurts himself sliding headfirst into a base because you decided it would be “nifty” to try a doomed-to-fail “run-manufacturing” play? Are you feeling invincible now that the mighty Mark Kotsay has returned from the DL? Did David Ortiz’s third home run of the season leave you feeling light-headed and omnipotent?
So far this season, the Red Sox have had mediocre starting pitching and bad defense. The one thing they have going for them is offense — even with their designated hitter flirting with the Mendoza line, Boston has still posted an .804 team OPS, good for a close fourth in the majors. Terry Francona gets crap from the fans for “just waiting for that three-run homer” but when you have the lineup Boston does, it’s not a bad strategy.
It’s certainly better than telling Ortiz and Lowell to steal.