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On Winning With Intangibles

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The Red Sox are banking at least in part on winning through better clubhouse chemistry. Hopefully they're planning on playing better baseball too.

Jared Wickerham

The Red Sox haven't exactly met with success over the past two seasons. Crushing failure more aptly describes the last 700 plus days of Boston baseball. The reasons for that failure are varied and up for debate, but one of the prominent story-lines peddled by the media is the lack of clubhouse... something. Maybe it was a lack of leadership from the players, maybe the manager wasn't pulling his weight, maybe the clubhouse culture was otherwise defective. It depends who you talk to, though what you see depends a lot what you wanted to find.

Terry Francona's new book will be out this week and I don't plan on discussing it here beyond this piece (and writing silliness about it), but, according to the Globe's Peter Abraham who doesn't specifically say but presumably read it, one of the prominent themes of the book is the difficulty in developing, maintaining, bolstering and whatever other words you want to use, a winning culture in the clubhouse. Up to the end this was a strength of Francona's managing. Francona did what his counterpart in New York, Joe Torre, did so effectively for years: shield his players from the pressures of the market they played in so that they could be comfortable and therefore play their best baseball. There is value in that, especially in a baseball-obsessed city like Boston.

However, sabermetric orthodoxy has long stated that winning creates good clubhouse chemistry, not the other way around. There is at least some and depending, on your point of view, maybe a lot of truth in that. Francona's last club in Boston, the 2011 Red Sox, are a prime example. They held it together for five months before tanking in September. There were certainly difficulties along the way, though that was probably true of the 2007 World Series champs -- we know it was true of the '04 champs -- but the team was 83-52 after beating the Yankees on August 31. That's a 100 win pace over five sixths of the season. Clubhouse chemistry couldn't have been that much of a problem. Then, suddenly, it was not just a problem but a fatal one.

We like to think that last year the problem was pronounced from the start, and Bobby Valentine sure didn't help things, but I'm not sure he was responsible for the egg laid by just about every Red Sox star. Then again, maybe he was. The Red Sox actions at the end of last season and into this off-season to the present time sure indicate they think so. Not only did they relieve Valentine of his duties, but they brought in Shane Victorino, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, and Jonny Gomes, players known to be hard working, team-oriented, and popular in the clubhouse.

It's possible that is just a coincidence. Mike Napoli and Stephen Drew are also coming aboard and though it's not as though they passed out buckets of chicken and six packs during their introductory press conferences, neither is known as an active force for good in the clubhouse chemistry department.

This off season has been all about maintaining payroll flexibility, holding onto the team's upcoming core of talent, avoiding crippling long-term commitments, and not surrendering draft picks. But there's another aspect to all of this. The Red Sox are quietly, without directly saying so (to my knowledge), remaking their clubhouse. The thing is, I wonder if it will matter.

While it's always preferable for the players to care about each other like brothers, and to fight fight fight against the dying of the light, that doesn't always produce winning. A week ago, Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald penned a piece called Leading the way: Red Sox discuss Pedroia's leadership. In it, Mr. Lauber cited some instances of Dustin Pedroia's leadership in attempt to, I guess, show how valuable it and thus he is. Here is one of the examples, as told by Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen.

"We're standing in the dugout, talking, (Orioles center fielder) Adam Jones is going to run up during batting practice to field his position. Pedroia just starts screaming at him: 'Don't hit the ball my way tonight. I'm telling you right now, you better plan on pulling that thing because if you hit it my way, you're out. You are out!'" Hazen said. "Adam Jones is running out to his position, looking around, like, 'What? That guy's crazy. What's wrong with him?' He didn’t respond. "I looked at him and said, 'Hey Pedey – we've lost 89 games and these (Orioles) are about to go to the playoffs.' Then he turned on me and started screaming at me. 'I don't care how many games we've lost. I don't care. That guy's out!’ After that, I said, 'All right. All right.' I walked away."

I don't know what you come away with from that story, but I get three things.

1. Great story!
2. Petey is awesome!
3. Doesn't matter!

Hazen is right. The Red Sox had lost 89 games. Pedroia can scream at Adam Jones all he likes, and I certainly encourage the behavior, but if Pedoia's leadership and will to win were so valuable, wouldn't the Red Sox have been better than 69-89? This is in no way to question Pedroia's value to the Red Sox. He's one of the best second basemen in baseball and probably former GM Theo Epstein's biggest parting gift to the franchise was signing him long term. He's a big reason they won in 2007 and he's been a big part of every win since. But he's only one guy and what he says and does in the clubhouse or screams at Adam Jones before a game in the great scheme of things doesn't matter much when compared to how he hit that day or how hard he fouls a ball off his foot.

This new season will be upon us before you know it. Players will report to Fort Myers and interminable practices in the sun will commence. At that time much will be made of the newness in clubhouse chemistry, culture, and whatever. It will be great. Or at least it will be better. Or at least it certainly won't be worse. The Red Sox are clearly banking on these new players and new manager John Farrell to vastly improve the team from the inside. But when it comes to altering the course of a season, give me good healthy players who hate each other every time. Hopefully the Red Sox still know that.