May 18, 2013
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Sunday, November 25, 2012
Exactly one decade ago today, one of the baseball world’s biggest signings of the 21st century occurred. It wasn’t a star pitcher or a high profile slugger. It wasn’t a player at all—though the person was about the age of an athlete in his prime.
It was a front office executive. On Nov. 25, 2002, the Red Sox named their new general manager: Theo Epstein. At 28, he became the youngest GM in the game. In face, he was the youngest in history.
Before coming to Boston, he’d served in San Diego with the Padres. He worked PR for them, and had gotten to know team president Larry Lucchino. When Lucchino became president of the Red Sox, he quickly tabbed Epstein as the new GM.
Really though, discussing Epstein’s career in baseball seems a tad silly. Normally that’s what these entries do—they recount what happened. But in this case what happened is so recent and so high profile that just going over it again is, well, silly.
Here’s the short version just to get it out of the way: Epstein’s Red Sox won the world title in 2004, his second full season on the job, ending the “Curse of the Bambino” that stretched back tin 1918. In 2007, the Red Sox won it again. Last year, Epstein resigned from Boston and currently runs the Cubs.
Though he has one of the best-regarded minds in baseball, a counterclaim can be made that Epstein is overrated. After all, Boston won 93 games immediately before to Epstein’s arrival. That was its third 90-win season in the last five, and seventh winning season out of eight. (And the Red Sox went only 78-84 in their ill-fated 1997 campaign). Epstein took a 93-win team and made it a 95-win team—but one whose stuff worked in the playoffs.
Yeah, the Red Sox really were a mighty nice team before Epstein got there. But they improved under him. In his nine years running Boston, they had a winning record every time, with at least 90 wins seven times (and 89 wins an eighth time). Before Epstein, the Red Sox hadn’t had a 95-win season since 1986. They did that six times with Epstein. Their Epstein winning percentage was .575 (839-619), which is just a hair under their best single season from 1987-2001 (a .580 mark in 1999).
It’s tough enough to maintain a successful run, but Epstein actually built upon it. As a bonus, he did it despite the best player on his squad leaving his prime. Pedro Martinez was as dominant as any pitcher ever at the turn-of-the-millennium, but injuries began to cut into his pitching time around when Epstein arrived. Martinez went 20-4 in his last pre-Theo season, but never topped 16 wins after that.
Another counterclaim can be made: steroids. After all, the two biggest hitters on his roster have both been implicated: Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. But aside from the fact that the Red Sox are far from the only team implicated, there were other factors going on with those two. It’s pretty much a given that Ramirez was a naturally great hitter. He’d been great since his Cleveland days– no one really disputes his talents.
There is a lot more disputing of Ortiz. After all, he’d been nothing special in Minnesota – heck, the Twins cut him – and then becomes a super-special-someone in Boston. Sure sounds like he’s purely a creation of modern medicine, doesn’t it?
I’m not denying that played a role, but it isn’t that simple. There was also an improvement in coaching, too. Tom Kelly did a great job in Minnesota, and he typically got the most out of his teams by creating a vision of what a ball club should be. Ortiz didn’t fit that vision at all. Kelly had parts of the game he was interested in, and parts he was willing to punt. He loved contact hitting, defense and fundamentals, and eschewed the long ball. His coaching staff told Ortiz to shorten his swing and do more to make contact.
This advice had worked to create a solid Twins club, but Ortiz’s value comes from swinging for the fences. It was putting a square peg into a round hole. Ortiz’ weaknesses were the Twins’ organization strengths, and his strengths their weaknesses. Ron Gardenhire continued this policy in his rookie season managing in 2002. Ortiz was good in his last season, but the Twins cut him. The Red Sox picked him up and told him to do what he did best. That worked. Steroids? Well, it’s more than just one factor that turned David Ortiz into David Ortiz.
In all, Epstein had a mighty nice time with Boston. His first season with the Cubs wasn’t nearly so pleasant, as they suffered their first 100 loss season in nearly a half-century, but overall Epstein earned his high profile for his successful job in Boston—and he began that job exactly 10 years ago today.
Aside from that, many events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim:
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