Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Red Sox Fall From Grace

TRIVIA QUESTION:  To which team was Tony Conigliaro traded when the Red Sox decided to move their power hitting outfielder?  

Baseball may have actually been inaugurated midway through the 1800's, but it really began as a "major league" sport in 1869. The team which led the charge by barn storming was the Cincinnati Red Legs.

Usually when a team wins a championship it can be counted on to at least be competitive the following year. Oftentimes however, this is not the case. Consider the case of the 1968 Boston Red Sox. In 1967, led by Triple Crown Winner Carl Yastrzemski and 22-game winner Jim Lonborg, they won the American League pennant. While they took the World Series to seven games, they lost to St. Louis.

Come 1968 they were expected to be right back in it. As it turns out on Opening Day, April 10th, 1968 they were. They beat Detroit 7-3 and were in first place. It would be the ONLY day they spent atop the American League all season.

When the dust settled the Red Sox were in fourth place, 17 games behind the Denny McLain led Tigers. He won 31 games that season and the Tigers did what the Sox failed to do the previous year; beat St. Louis in the Series.
It wasn't as if the Sox were bad. They were not. They had numerous four and five game winning streaks and no really prolonged losing streaks. At one stretch in July they won 11 of 12 games, sandwiched around the All Star Game in Houston. They never lost more than four in a row, either.

Boston finished 10 games over .500, so how on earth did they manage to end up 17 games out of first place? A return to form from the previous year by Yaz may have made a difference. The HOF left fielder went from a line of .326, 44 homers and 121 RBI to winning the battle title again with a .301 average, 23 home runs and 74 RBI. 

The supporting cast went down the tubes. First baseman George Scott went from .303 and 19 homers to a measly .171 and three dingers. Joe Foy went from .251 to .225, Rico Petrocelli dropped from 17 homers to 12. The devastating loss of Tony Conigliaro was offset by Ken Harrelson's 35 homers and 109 RBI. 
Conigliaro was hit in the face by a pitch from the Angel's Jack Hamilton during an incredible 1967 and missed the entire 1968 season. He did come back with two strong seasons after that but the injury did cut short his career. Harrelson, a part time player in "67 turned it on the following season.

The pitching didn't really fail the Sox in 1968, the year of the pitcher. That is with the exception of the club's ace. Lonborg dropped from 22 wins to 6-10. The reliable Gary Bell went from 12-8 to 11-11, while Jose Santiago was very consistent. When your team is led by Ray Culp (16-6) and an aging Dick Ellsworth at 16-7, something is amiss.

Actually Bell, Culp, Ellsworth and Santiago were amazing. All were right around 3.00 in the ERA department. Lonborg was a disaster though. His drop off in wins by 16 and his ERA of 4.29 could not be overcome as he barely pitched more than 100 innings.  Consider this; hypothetically, if Lonborg had matched his 1967 output, the Red Sox would have finished just ONE game back, NOT 17.
Defensively both Scott and Petrocelli were stellar but Mike Andrews at second base and Foy at third committed 48 errors between them. Believe it or not when it came to infield defense and errors the four starters were better in 1968. 

So again, what happened? The bench was a big problem. In 1967 the club got lots of production from reserves, especially Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones. The following season the bench went from strong to anemic. Both players dropped around 40 points or more and failed to contribute as they did before. The same can be said for most of the other back up players.

Perhaps it wasn't the fact the Red Sox became suddenly bad, it was the fact the Tigers became suddenly incredible. The Tigers went from a respectable 91 wins to 103 on their way to the World Series Title. Baltimore finished second with 91 wins leaving the Red Sox virtually tied with Cleveland with 86. 

Sometimes its not how well you play, it's how well the competition played and this pretty much sums up the year of the pitcher in Boston. 

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