A Bridge Over Dirty Water (Part 1)


How quickly circumstances can change in the world of professional baseball.

Precisely one year ago, the Boston Red Sox, having just completed an impressive three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays, improved to 85-58 and extended their winning streak to six games with a victory over John Lackey and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Today, the forecast in Boston is noticeably different than it was then.

John Lackey has since left the Angels, signing a lucrative off-season contract with the Red Sox as a free agent following the 2009 season. He is joined by other notable newcomers such as Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre.

Jacoby Ellsbury now wears jersey number two while Clay Buchholz opted to switch to eleven.

The most glaring difference between this season and last, however, is where the team finds themselves in the standings, and more importantly, the race for the postseason.

Last season, Boston had all but eliminated the Rays’ postseason potential with that three-game sweep and increased their wild card lead to relatively comfortable levels – a lead that would ultimately hold up as the Red Sox claimed second place in the East and were awarded a date in the American League Divisional Series with the Angels.

Nowadays, for the first time since 2006, some of Red Sox Nation has reallocated their sports enthusiasm almost entirely; partially caused by the beginning of the NFL season, but mainly due to the fact that, like 2006, their beloved Sox will likely miss the playoffs for the first time in four years.

While that unfortunate fact is perhaps the most distinct difference, it may not be the most interesting. Take, for instance, the cases of both Jacoby Ellsbury and Terry Francona, who have gone from unanimously admired in Boston to the topics of constant scrutiny in a considerably brief period of time.

One year ago today, Ellsbury was amidst the most statistically impressive season of his young career and was establishing himself as an elite major league leadoff hitter. Meanwhile, manager Terry Francona was in the process of leading Boston to the postseason for the fifth time in just his sixth season at the helm. Both were arguably at the peak of their popularity amongst the Fenway faithful. However, 2010 has ushered a swift shift in that regard.

All of the sudden Jacoby Ellsbury – second only to Dustin Pedroia in games played a season ago – is being questioned in regards his durability and defensive abilities. Terry Francona – baselessly nicknamed "Francoma" – is now, according to some, inept and undeserving of the very same managerial duties that he’s performed so successfully during his tenure with the team to this point.

In 2009, nobody seemed to mind Ellsbury’s .301 batting average, team-leading 188 hits and Red Sox record-setting 70 stolen bases at the top of the lineup; there were no mentions of defensive liabilities then. Terry Francona wasn’t being second-guessed in the aftermath of every loss when his team was contending.

So, why now? Did Jacoby suddenly forget how to hit and play center field during his time on the disabled list? Has Francona managed to unlearn the skills that have helped guide two championships to Boston?

Yes, those questions are rhetorical. But, rhetoric aside, the question remains: What has caused such a drastic shift in public opinion of the two, Ellsbury specifically?

Let’s take a look at both situations more in-depth, starting first with Jacoby Ellsbury.

Thanks to a nagging injury to his ribs -- sustained in a collision with Adrian Beltre during the season’s early goings – that resulted in a substantial amount of time on the disabled list, Jacoby Ellsbury has gone from Fenway favorite to the subject of near-universally negative discussion. Whether pertaining to questions surrounding his toughness and defensive abilities, altercations involving the organization’s medical personnel, or the subsequent trade rumors, there’s no denying the contrast in public opinion of Ellsbury now from where it was less than a year ago.

In MLB.com’s 2009 This Year in Baseball Awards -- decided entirely by fan voting -- the Defensive Player of the Year was, ironically enough, Jacoby Ellsbury.

From MLB.com: Defensive Player of the Year – Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: Ellsbury has built his reputation as a base stealer, but his Gibby victory shows that fans have come to recognize his outstanding defensive ability as well. Boston’s pitching staff certainly enjoyed having the sure-handed speedster in center, as Ellsbury committed just two errors all season for a robust .994 fielding percentage. Thanks to his airtight glove work and highlight-reel ability, Ellsbury earned 34.6 percent of the vote, easily outdistancing the 15.3 percent garnered by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Since then, however, the emergence of new-age statistics made famous by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) have forced fans to reconsider their stance in regards to Ellsbury’s defensive prowess (or lack thereof). Comprehensive combinations of both mathematical and statistical analysis assigning ratings to players based on a seemingly endless list of elements and situations, Sabermetrics have dethroned traditional barometers of success such as batting average, earned run average, and most notably in Ellsbury’s case, fielding percentage. One in particular, UZR (ultimate zone rating), which is, to some extent, considered an accurate depiction of a fielder’s true value, implies that Ellsbury was actually the worst full-time center fielder in all of baseball in 2009. In other words, Jacoby’s defensive prowess that garnered league-wide recognition on MLB.com was actually a matter of defensive liability, according to SABR.

Whether you’re an advocate of Sabermetrics or not is beside the point; the fact of the matter is that statistics like UZR were relevant well before Ellsbury’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2009. Again, MLB.com’s TYIB Awards are entirely subject to fan voting, so if fans were impressed enough with Ellsbury in 2009 to ignore such statistics and reward him for his glove work, why now has it become trendy to dispel his defensive worth?

Defensive skill isn’t the only topic that Jacoby has had to, well, defend in the media. Ellsbury’s toughness has been called into question following the collision with Adrian Beltre’s knee on April 11th that led to five broken ribs and a season spent on the disabled list.

The questioning of Ellsbury’s toughness is puzzling, to say the least. Prior to this season, the only other time that I can remember Jacoby being hurt was during June of 2008, his rookie year. No, he didn’t pull a muscle in his back while sneezing (Sammy Sosa), miss games due to sleeping awkwardly (J.D. Drew) or severely injure his forearm playing Guitar Hero (Joel Zumaya); instead, Ellsbury selflessly strained his wrist making a miraculous full-extension diving catch in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Puzzling may not be sufficiently descriptive, actually – at least not in Terry Francona’s mind. Amidst constant questioning of Ellsbury’s health and determination to return to the team from reporters and local radio show hosts, Terry decided to take offense in Jacoby’s defense.

"Have you ever had reason to believe that Jacoby Ellsbury was a soft player? No. And I think for anyone to ever say that … is very disrespectful."

He continued by indirectly addressing the conflicting prognosis surrounding Ellsbury’s ribs; "My instincts tell me the kid was probably a little more sore than he was letting on, probably for obvious reasons. He wanted to play. He was catching heat from a lot of you – all of you tough guys." Francona, referencing Ellsbury’s ill-fated decision to attempt a premature return from the disabled list in late May, justifiably placed a portion of the blame on the media’s berating of the young outfielder for applying a cautious approach to his rehabbing.

That cautious approach, in retrospect, was warranted.

Upon his return in May, Ellsbury would play just three games before revisiting the disabled list.

"I didn’t do this myself. I didn’t tweak something and sit out. I got hurt going all-out, one-hundred percent for a ball," Ellsbury explained. "I tried to come back when I knew I wasn’t one-hundred percent. That’s all I can say. Everybody knows how I play. Everyone knows I want to be out there. You can’t control everybody and what they think."

While team physicians initially proclaimed the injury to be nothing more than bruising, reportedly even refusing requests for an MRI, it was only after Ellsbury’s return to the disabled list that the team’s medical staff acknowledged the fifth broken rib suffered by Jacoby – even then taking the stance that it was sustained during yet another diving catch in a May 23rd game, part of his short-lived return to the lineup, and not as a result of his initial collision with Beltre.

Ellsbury, of course, refuted the claim, leading to an all-too-public altercation with the team’s medical staff and further scrutiny directed at Jacoby.

Despite rushing back to the lineup in an attempt to appease the entirely off-base voice of the media's majority, Jacoby continues to receive negative attention for a season simply marred by unfortunate circumstance – ultimately leading to reported trade rumors revolving around the young outfielder.

On July 14th, via Over the Monster, I explored the potential that the then pertinent talks with the Kansas City Royals regarding the availability of outfielder David DeJesus suggested the end of the Ellsbury era in Boston. According to sources at FOX Sports, the Red Sox first made contact with the Royals in early July, around the time that the rift between Ellsbury and team physicians was at its peak, and left the meeting with a mutual interest in reigniting conversations – some indications even implied the break in talks was used by the Royals organization to actively sift through the Red Sox’s minor league ranks in search of potential trade candidates.

Although the discussions with Kansas City produced nothing substantial, after all, Ellsbury is still a member of the Red Sox, unanswered speculation lingers as to why -- when it’s so simple to dispel nearly all negativity aimed at Ellsbury this season using simple unbiased rationale and logic – is the frustrated young star still being undermined and undervalued?

For the sake of foreshadowing, it’s worth noting that Jacoby Ellsbury is arbitration eligible for the first time in his career following the 2010 season; more on that later.

But first, we shift focus to manager Terry Francona, who has spent so much time addressing those critical of his aforementioned center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, that he’s allocated such little time to standing up for himself. Or, perhaps he’s just used to the constant barrage of scrutiny that accompanies being a major league manager, especially one in Boston.

The most reoccurring aspersion associated with the Red Sox manager is the nickname Terry "Francoma," seemingly meant to imply that he is less-than-swift with his in-game decision making. Particularly in regards to managing and monitoring his starting pitchers late in games, which is assuredly the easiest way to get on Red Sox Nation’s bad side since Grady Little’s 2003 travesty against New York in the deciding game of the American League Championship Series.

Unfortunately, the man now only occasionally referred to lovingly as "Tito," has probably heard "Francoma" more times this season than his actual name, much less "Tito." Now, that unremarkably creative nickname [Francoma] was conceived a number of seasons prior to 2010. However, not only has it grown increasingly frequent this year, its done so undeservedly, all things considered.

Aside from the obvious argument that Tito led the Red Sox to their first World Series win in nearly ninety seasons in 2004 -- back when being in contention for a championship was riveting, not a right – there are a number of other aspects routinely overlooked by this year’s Tito-naysayers.

Most notably, in relation to the popular belief most often instigating those "Francoma" remarks, is that Terry cannot seem to grasp the notion that it’s time to abandon his starting pitcher in favor of the bullpen. What’s apparently lost in translation, however, is the stark contrast in effectiveness of this season’s relief corps as opposed to last. It seems almost too simple, theoretically, to offer that as an excuse. But the fact of the matter is, in most instances it’s true.

Entering the season, contrary to popular belief, the Red Sox most glaring weakness was the bullpen and not the offense. Red Sox management did nothing to alleviate those concerns prior to the year, nor did they address them even during the season with problematic ‘pen on full display. Even once reliable relievers like Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima failed to produce in 2010, making it hard to blame Francona for his reluctance in handing the ball, and the game, over to the bullpen.

Also, it goes without saying that injuries in general were the ultimate downfall of this team. Over the Monster even featured a post entitled, "What we lost... what we 'gained'" [submitted by Rogue Nine] that used, you guessed it, new-age statistical measurements to roughly estimate that the Red Sox lost approximately eight games in the standings simply based on the subtraction of offensive players – like Jacoby Ellsbury – to injuries during the course of the season.

Would Francona even be answering questions regarding his "coma-like" behavior on the bench during games had it not been for a disastrous, injury-riddled season? Of course not.

Now, I’m certainly not taking the stance that Francona is always perfect with his in-game decision making. After all, you don’t get a nickname like "Francoma" without dropping the ball at least a few times. However, there isn’t a single manager in all of baseball who hasn’t done the same on occasion.

In fact, in Michael Holley's book, Red Sox Rule: Terry Francona and Boston’s Rise to Dominance, Holley points out that during Boston’s search for Grady Little’s successor post-2003, Theo Epstein and John Henry specifically targeted candidates who were more apt to handle selfish, larger-than-life player personalities with a diminished, yet still prominent, emphasis on the actual in-game aspect of the job requirements.

After a written test and game simulation, Francona was hired.

In other words, starting from the day that Terry Francona accepted the job, the Red Sox were aware of what they were hiring – a guy who had mediocre success in his previous position with the Philadelphia Phillies, but also a guy who they knew could handle the likes of Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. That’s what Francona does best, and it has worked well to this point. People tend to forget that managing the Boston Red Sox is unlike almost any other managerial job in baseball. There needn’t be an enormous emphasis on in-game management because, quite honestly, Boston’s lineup is typically filled by veterans and All-Stars, not developing talents and rookies like you’d find in Florida, Pittsburgh or even Tampa Bay – the players know what to do, it’s merely a matter of keeping them focused on that.

Daniel Drezner echoed Holley’s sentiments in an article written in 2008. In it, he states that the three most tumultuous tasks required of a Boston Red Sox manager are keeping the players on the same page, handling the media and never panicking during the season; all of which Francona excels at regularly. Drezner even goes as far as saying that Francona is underrated as a manager, pointing out that he’s never won a Manager of the Year Award despite the miracle season of 2004, a playoff birth in 2005 while guiding a team lacking any true top-tier starting pitchers or an established closer, and a 2007 team that finished with the best record in baseball en route to a World Series title. Even more insane is the fact that in all the previously mentioned seasons, Francona never once received a single first-place vote in the Manager of the Year balloting.

And yes, when the Society for American Baseball Research inevitably conceives a mathematical equation depicting success in relation to the timeliness of a manager’s removal of his starting pitchers, Terry Francona may very well be towards the bottom of the league, but that doesn’t mean that he’s to blame every time. More importantly, it wouldn’t justify denying Tito the benefit of the doubt in most cases – I think he’s earned that much.

Yet, here Francona is, two World Series titles later, still being disregarded by not only media-types but his own fans on occasion as well.

Here Jacoby Ellsbury is, similarly, watching the finale of a disappointing season that saw him, ironically enough, be ostracized for fighting so hard to be a part of it.

And finally, here both Francona and Ellsbury are, interestingly enough, sharing a common characteristic: Reason to believe that the 2011 season will be a deciding factor in their futures at Fenway, and one that doesn’t exactly project positively in either case.

As I stated earlier, Jacoby Ellsbury will enter 2011 arbitration eligible for the first time in his young career. Arbitration processes are painstaking enough as it is, but Ellsbury’s potentially projects to be on a whole different level. After a breakthrough season in 2009, Ellsbury contributed very little to the team in 2010, but as he will contest, it is the Red Sox themselves who are at fault for that – something that won’t be agreeable by both parties. Given the nature of Ellsbury’s relationship with certain areas of the team already, one would think that the team would have approached Jacoby will an extension offer at some point early in the season or even before it to avoid a potential arbitration hearing. Now, with a hearing almost inevitable, it’s hard to imagine the two coming out of the process with an improved opinion of one another – which also makes it nearly impossible to imagine the Red Sox coming to terms with Ellsbury on an extension at all.

With trade rumors already beginning as early as this past July, does that set the table for the off-season departure of Ellsbury? If so, how did it get to this point? Who is really to blame?

Francona enters 2011 under the final year of his contract; it remains to be seen where the Red Sox stand in terms of their interest in extending Terry’s deal. One thing is for certain, following an incredibly disappointing season, will there be enough mutual interest from both parties to work out an extension?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Red Sox fan who doesn’t love Tito, but after a season in which they cried "Francoma" even more regularly than years past, will they still be adverse to seeing him go? Will he even want to stay?

Like Ellsbury’s situation, it’s almost inconceivable to think that someone so beloved in Boston such a short time ago could be so easily let go; even more so if the fans are truly on board with it.

Then again, maybe the correlation between the change in public opinion and the contractual states of both is more than just coincidental; perhaps there is a method behind the madness, so to speak.

Theo Epstein will tell you first-hand, sometimes there are situations behind the scenes that the general public isn’t necessarily privy to, and often times it’s for the better. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Epstein himself experienced the ugly side of professional sports during contract negotiations with the very same management currently heading the Boston Red Sox.

In fact, Epstein’s situation wasn’t the first to publicly expose the sometimes ugly inner workings of the Red Sox’s front office, and as we’ll explore in part two of this submission, it may not be the last.

 

*Be sure to revisit Over the Monster next week (September 22nd) for Part 2, which will take a deeper look into the possibility that public opinion of Jacoby Ellsbury and Terry Francona is perhaps being directly influenced by a third party. The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti will even offer some of his opinions on the matter.

 

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