Cherington Builds Foundation for Success in Boston

Ben Cherington

On the morning of September 21, 2012, Ben Cherington knew what he had, a 68-84 team that was listing towards last place, 20 games behind the Yankees. He knew he had maneuverability thanks to the August 25th deal with the Dodgers that he and his owners had constructed, he knew that there would be a managerial change, he knew “we were not who or what we wanted to be.”

So he set out to tear away the lesions from the past. Of 9/2011. Of the chicken’n beer smudge. Of the hard feelings that remained in the wake of the departures of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona.

On the morning of Sept. 21, 2013, “who and what we are” was American League East champions, the only .600 team in baseball. They clinched on the back of the man who started the final game of the 2007 World Series, Jon Lester, who with his ninth consecutive quality start had fronted a starting rotation that had lost one game in September. Oh, there was the beards thing and Jonny Gomes celebrating in an army helmet, but, most of all, fifteen hours earlier, Friday afternoon, captured who and what this team had morphed into.

Ryan Dempster, who had signed as a free agent, was talking about his move to the bullpen for the post-season, saying “I can help this team out of the pen. I’ve closed. Hey, I’ve had my time finishing 19th in the Cy Young voting, what I haven’t had is a ring. That’s what we’re all here for.”

Walking out towards the bullpen was Felix Doubront with pitching Coach Juan Nieves and bullpen/assistant pitching Coach Dana LeVangie, to work on Doubront’s delivery. On the infield, Brian Butterfield was holding his daily infield drills, with Dustin Pedroia, John McDonald, Xander Bogaerts, Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks and Brandon Snyder. Inside, David Ross and Jake Peavy finished their indoctrination work with three of the organization’s prized young pitchers, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens.

Indians President Mark Shapiro was on the phone, talking about Cherington, Mike Hazen and John Farrell, with whom Shapiro worked in Cleveland over the years. “What strikes me from afar is that what has been created is a team without a huge ego,” said Shapiro. “But it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows those three men. With Ben, Mike and John, it’s never been about them. It’s never been about credit or ego. It’s simply been about doing the right thing. They are all very good at the important leadership skill of prioritizing.”

When Cherington talks about his evolution as a general manager, he talks about “learning from ones’ miscalculations.” He insists on “knowing our own players as they progress through the system, which is not linear.” He seeks “multiple options.” He believes “you cannot make rash judgments over your long-term view of players,” which is why he did not listen when teams called about Will Middlebrooks when he was exiled to Pawtucket, and has not listened to calls about Jackie Bradley.

And he clearly returned to the core value of prioritizing. Cherington prioritized getting Farrell back to Boston, which enabled him to set up the decision-making structure. It essentially is a troika, three men who not only, as Shapiro points out, do not suffer from the need for attention or credit, but who are highly respectful people, respectful of one another’s opinions, respectful of an empowered coaching staff, respectful of the work of Ben Crockett and the development staff, Amiel Sawdaye and the amateur scouting department, respectful of Allard Baird and Jared Porter and all their professional scouts.

Rather than reacting to the embarrassments of September, 2011 and the last place 2012 team, Cherington ignored the temptation to grab off-season headlines by going the Josh Hamilton route or Blue Jays route and went about trying to build the foundation of what he saw as the dual mission necessary for large market franchises to sustain success—contend and develop simultaneously. “That’s the ideal goal of every team,” says Cherington. “I think it’s something Theo established really well, and, after all, most of us learned with him. Ideally, you try to build a team that can contend, with players who embrace bringing young players into the equation and developing them”

So, after signing David Ortiz and his meaning to the franchise, Cherington assembled a deep roster of free agents who gave what Billy Beane admires as “a very deep team with alternatives and the capability of creating matchups down the stretch.” Ownership did not require splash, perhaps after the $142M debacle for Carl Crawford. When Cherington, Hazen and Farrell pulled the organization together, they constantly asked about players’ “toughness,” understanding how some of the fall from 2007’s grace came from players who could not stand up to the edge of playing in the Northeast.

Mike Napoli had a big April, a big September and is in the top four first basemen in either league in defensive runs saved. Stephen Drew’s season was slowed by a serious concussion issue, but has been a superb defender, “one of the best in the game,” in Dempster’s words. David Ross has also suffered concussion issues, but has been the equivalent of a third pitching coach, master catcher. Shane Victorino has hovered near .300, hit 14 homers despite several injuries and been a brilliant defender at Fenway’s most difficult defensive position, right field. Teammates marvel at his daily pregame preparation, going over how pitchers and catchers plan to approach each opposing hitter, as well as how he positions and repositions himself on every pitch. Gomes has been, well, what he’s been wherever he’s played, the energetic, platoon leader whose daily presence makes one realize why Joe Maddon says “there’s a reason wherever he goes, that team wins.”

Oh yes. Koji Uehara. Cherington traded for Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon and Joel Hanrahan in successive off-seasons, and by June, Uehara was the closer that turned out to be the most impactful reliever in the AL East. “And,” says Craig Breslow, “he’s one of the most popular, funniest guys on the team.”

Then when the Red Sox were still in first place in July, Cherington made his big trade, sending Jose Iglesias for Jake Peavy, a deal possible because the Red Sox have Bogaerts and Deven Marrero on the immediate horizon. “Let’s not forget that Theo left us Bogaerts and Iglesias,” says Cherington.

Many have long thought that baseball and football had reversed terms, that baseball managers are really coaches, football coaches are clearly managers. Not so in the case of Farrell. He has managed a farm system, and he manages not only players, but a coaching staff that he empowers. Other managers ask how much Farrell still runs the pitching staff, and the answer is that he has known Nieves since they were winter ball roommates, knows how intelligent and tough he is and has allowed him and LeVangie to run the pitching.

What has evolved is that over the season, the starting staff has developed into a power staff. Lester went through a few weeks struggling with his mechanics, but has not only run off a 1.80 earned run average since August 8, but has built his velocity back to 94-97 and has used his fastball on both sides of the plate, become far less dependent on his cutter and is the 2007-2010 Lester thought to be an annual Cy Young contender. Clay Buchholz’s velocity is creeping up in his return from his three month absence because of his neck injury, and his 1.51 ERA is hardly a fluke. When he moved from the third base side of the rubber to the first base side, it changed hitters’ looks at his sinker and curveball, and made his five pitch mix even more effective. John Lackey has sat in the mid-90’s all season, and on Wednesday flirted with a no-hitter as he threw nearly 90 fastballs. Peavy, at the suggestion of Pedro Martinez, dropped his arm slot to where he was in his Cy Young days and feels his stuff has seen a significant uptick.

“It’s a combination of all of them gaining confidence in using their fastballs a lot more,” says Jarrod Saltalamacchia, “and command of their fastballs. That’s the key. They’re all commanding their fastballs, so they throw more of them, those pitches get better and now it’s a power staff.”

“It has a lot to do with confidence,” says Nieves. “That’s not something that you can turn on and turn off. It’s built over the season.” Having Uehara with his 1.14 ERA, 32 hits, 9 walks and 92 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings obviously makes everyone a little braver, but the management of Nieves and LeVangie with Farrell getting Uehara up twice all season without him going into a game has kept him fresh; in 2011, Uehara was worn down in Texas and taken off the roster for the World Series, a series lost to the Cardinals in the bullpen.

People all around the game, far from the earshot of Cherington, Hazen and Farrell, believe Butterfield is the best coach in the game, a belief held by Buck Showalter to Derek Jeter to Aaron Hill to John McDonald. They hired Greg Colbrunn as one hitting coach and brought in Victor Rodriguez, a longtime, tireless organizational coach who has been a valuable part of the work with Iglesias, Middlebrooks and players with whom he has worked with in the past. Torey Lovullo is a future manager. Arnie Beyeler not only won as a minor league manager, but has a history with virtually every player they have brought up.

Then there was Cherington’s insistence on getting a long-term deal done with Pedroia. In last season’s darkest days, Cherington said, “If this team is going to be what I would hope it can be, Pedroia has to be a big part of it.” When the deal got done, Pedroia had offered and agreed to defer part of the deal. “I’m here because I love Boston and I want to win here,” said Pedroia. “I told Ben I’d defer money because I want him to have every opportunity to sign players so we can win.” Which is what he did when he gave up his Arizona State scholarship before his junior (signing) year so Coach Pat Murphy could sign a pitcher. When ASU made the College World Series the year after Pedroia signed, every player had “DP” written on his cap.

pedroia bradley jr“Dustin is really important to what we want to do because he buys into young players,” says Cherington. “That isn’t always the case, but he loves helping younger players, he likes pushing them and getting them involved in that daily infield work. He has an unusual grasp of our business. He knows that if we’re going to be good, year in and year out that we have to have a steady flow of young talent contributing while they’re controllable and making lesser money. It’s the reality of the business.”

Cherington admits that in some of his signings, he may have overpaid, at least slightly. But Gomes, Ross, Drew, Victorino, Dempster, Peavy, et al all buy into the idea of accepting and helping young players. So, of course, does John Lackey, who along with Josh Beckett—3000 miles away—mentored Drake Britton when the rookie had his driving incident in spring training, where Britton says “I will never forget.”

As the evolution of the starting pitching into a power staff is, as Nieves says, in part psychological, so, too, the return of the Red Sox to a grinding offensive team has been a spreading process. Remember, after Ortiz was hurt last July, the team’s on-base percentage was .295. This season the Red Sox have seen more than 1,000 more pitches than any other team, leading to them scoring the most runs with the highest OBP and OPS in the game. It is Ortiz. It is Pedroia. It is also Daniel Nava, who Joe Girardi calls “one of toughest outs in the league.”

Back in spring training, when there were media concerns about their offense, Cherington and Hazen each insisted “Daniel Nava is better than anyone out there.” When Nava moved into a regular role en route to his current ranking of second in batting and on base and third in OPS among American League outfielders, Hazen said, “don’t be giving us credit. Daniel Nava deserves every ounce of the credit for what he’s become, because he did it himself.” In the world of the Development Troika, the mantra is about the players.

As the troika from the grass roots of development have tried to implement their plan for dual missions, they all remind us that this would not be possible without having what other teams consider a top three farm system without John Henry and ownership taking Bud Selig’s calls and allowing them to go above slot in the old draft system. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, they went above what were thought to be strict slot suggestions (from New York) to sign Ranaudo, Sean Coyle, Garin Cecchini, Blake Swihart, Owens, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Mookie Betts. For all the good they have done, being able to sign the free agents wouldn’t be possible without one of the five highest payrolls.

Some may cringe at the beards and the getups and American flag shorts and the bold “this is our(—) city,” but the vision Ben Cherington—grandson of a legendary Dartmouth poet and professor, a man who is known to read The Economist on a Stairmaster—had a year ago on September 21 turned out the way he hoped. It is a vision not of sexy free agent signings or star power, but of veterans and youngsters, who love to play, who understand their common purpose.

They have played more than a dozen rookies in 2013, which is part of the business model, but it is also what fans like Jack Richards and Ned Gammons, who went to The Fens in The Forties and watched Dick Williams manage that group of organizational kids to The Impossible Dream and reveled in the Rice/Lynn/Evans/Burleson/Fisk/Cooper journey to Game Six and remember that on the night a courageous cancer survivor won the clincher in 2007 that the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to a contract they now cannot live down.

Cherington grew up understanding Jack Richards’ passion for the Red Sox, and understands that not only is it virtually impossible—save the Dodger payroll—to build a team that sustains contention through free agency, but as a fan it is far more enjoyable when they’re like the Gold Dust Twins of ’75, Clemens and Hurst and The Can in ’86, Pedroia and Ellsbury and Lester in ’07.

“What is so extraordinary about Dustin Pedroia,” Cherington says, “is he values what we value. The more players we acquire and develop that share those values, the better chance we have to sustain success.”

  • Redtalx

    Great article Peter! Go Red Sox! This is your year!

  • Koba

    Tour d’force! Peter’s passion for the game has developed into an insightful understanding of baseball that is truly unique.