Groundhog's Week: Comparing the Awful Starts of 2011 and 2012

Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine (25) takes the ball from relief pitcher Mark Melancon (37) during the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Detorit won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

You want a prediction about the weather; you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life. – Bill Murray, Groundhog’s Day

I have been thinking about the movie Groundhog’s Day a lot lately. Red Sox fans are getting the Phil Conner’s treatment right now, being forced to re-live the same terrible experience over and over again. Last season, the team started 0-6. This season, they are 1-5. The numbers are slightly different, but the effect is the same. Or maybe, it’s worse. After all that the team put us through this fall, starting the season with a near perfect replication of the start of the 2011 just seems cruel.

Yet that is where we are. Last year, the team began the year scoring 16 runs in the first six games and allowing 38. This year the team has scored 22 runs and allowed, you guessed it, 38. In the sixth game last season, Jon Lester was excellent, pitching seven innings and striking out nine. However, the line up failed to show up and the bullpen, which was awful in the first six games, cost him the win. Back then, it was Daniel Bard not starting, he was in the bullpen, playing the part of 2012 Mark Melancon. Bard took the loss in game one, entering with the game tied at 5-5 in the seventh and promptly giving up four runs. He then took the loss in that the sixth game as well and at the end of that miserable stretch he had an ERA of 16.88. Last year, Terry Francona had secretary named Valentine and Bobby Valentine now has a secretary named Francona! Oh My GOD! Where does it end?

Last season, the losing streak ended when the Red Sox finally came home. Like 2011, the team began this season with six straight games on the road. In 2011, they played a tough opening series against the 2010 American League Champions, who went on to reclaim that title. This season, they began against the Detroit Tigers, the 2011 AL Central champs who are a virtual lock to repeat as such. The Red Sox ended last year’s losing streak against their division rival, the New York Yankees, winning 6-9 in their home opener. Once again, we have a division rival, the Tamp Bay Rays, lined up for the home opener. The night before last year’s losing streak Francona was in Monroe, Maryland… ok, I’ll stop, I promise.

The similarities between the two seasons offer both hope and fear. Last season had a happy middle, after all. The 2011 team went 11-9 over the rest of April and won 83 games by the beginning of September, a 100 win pace. Some of the issues that plagued the team in their first six games- the inability to score, the ineffective bullpen- were non-issues for most of the season. However, the end of the season was historically awful and at least one of the problems that haunted those early games- poor starting pitching performances- played a central role in the collapse.

If this season continues to follow the script from last year, this weekend series will be the start of a turnaround for the Red Sox. Starting on the road, playing two good teams, it isn’t all that surprising that the Red Sox have stumbled out of the gate two years in a row. Like last season, the issues of these first few games will most fade into the background as the team hits its stride. However, not all of the problems the team is experience now are the result of bad luck and small samples. Just which one of the team’s failings will need the most attention as the trade deadline approaches is difficult to ascertain this early, but fears about the bullpen may not just be knee-jerk reactions.

Last year, the bullpen was very good, but by the year’s end it had been drastically overworked. This year, with the additions of Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard, the rotation looks much more capable. While Terry Francona was quick to call in relief and put too much weight on his bullpen, Bobby Valentine has already shown the opposite tendency. By pitching Jon Lester in the eighth inning in Game 6, pushing him to 116 pitches in a losing effort, Valentine showed a lack of faith in his bullpen options. At the start of that eighth inning, the Red Sox win expectancy was just 15%. If Valentine feels the need to extend his ace to hold on a 15% chance of winning, he will absolutely overtax his starters the way that Francona overtaxed his bullpen.

If the Red Sox are going to break out of this cycle of endless recurrence and finally get Andie MacDowell to fall in love with them, they need to find a way to make bullpen work that does not also deplete their starting pitching (So, no. Bard back to the bullpen is not answer). Either Bobby Valentine needs to learn to trust some of the guys he has waiting out in right field or the front office needs to find people he does trust or there is no way that this winter is ever going to end…

Now, let’s all say a prayer and drink to world peace.

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