Baseball fans were treated to two historic collapses last September. The Atlanta Braves blew a huge lead in the NL wild card race and fumbled away a chance to go to the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
The Boston Red Sox lost first their lead in the AL East and then their lead in the AL wild card race, and they too fumbled away a chance to go to the postseason on the final day of the season.
One of these teams has recovered quite nicely since last September. The other has not.
You'd never tell from looking at the 2012 Braves that they crashed and burned at the end of the 2011 season. They have the third-best record in the National League, and they once again have a comfortable lead in the NL wild card race.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, are still very much in the hole they fell into last September. They're on track to finish with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 1997, and they certainly don't look like a team that is capable of avoiding such a dire fate.
So what gives? How have the Braves turned their fortunes around since last September and the Red Sox haven't?
There's more than one reason, of course. And here they are.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
The Braves' collapse in 2011 was bad. Maybe not as bad as the Red Sox's collapse, but it was pretty bad all the same. They went 9-18 in September and finished the season on a five-game losing streak.
When the collapse was complete, people started playing the blame game.
There was plenty of blame to go around. Atlanta's offense had its worst month in September, scoring only 87 runs with a collective .235 batting average. The bullpen lost nine games, the most in Major League Baseball.
And of course, some blamed the manager. Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, for example, penned a column in which he said that the "vibe" that existed under Bobby Cox went missing under Fredi Gonzalez, and that Gonzalez was to blame for that.
But Schultz didn't call for Gonzalez's firing. Few did, in fact, and in the end, Gonzalez kept his job.
So did Atlanta GM Frank Wren, and he proceeded to make relatively few moves during the offseason. Instead of shaking up the roster that was responsible for the September collapse, he kept it largely intact.
Patience ruled Atlanta's offseason after the Braves collapsed. Nobody freaked out.
Meanwhile in Boston, everyone was freaking out. Terry Francona wasn't invited back to manage the club, and GM Theo Epstein soon followed him out the door. Ben Cherington was named as Epstein's successor almost immediately, but a successor for Francona was not found until after a long, drawn-out and apparently contentious search was carried out.
They of course ended up Bobby Valentine, who is not exactly a storm-quieter.
And of course, there was the apocalyptic report from Bob Hohler of The Boston Globe that threw the franchise into further disarray.
Chaos. Utter chaos.
A lot of different ingredients went into Boston's collapse last September, but the primary culprit was the club's pitching staff.
Sox pitchers had an MLB-high 5.84 ERA last September. Their starters posted a dreadful 7.08 ERA.
Nearly a year later, Boston's pitching staff still hasn't recovered. The Red Sox rank in the lower third in MLB in team ERA. Their starters have a 4.89 ERA, 26th in all of baseball.
There are good reasons for this. Clay Buchholz was a disaster early in the season, and both Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have struggled all season long. The rest of Boston's rotation has been a patchwork affair from day one.
In retrospect, the struggles of Boston's pitching staff probably should have cost fired pitching coach Bob McClure his job a lot sooner.
Atlanta's own pitching staff hasn't had it easy this season either, mind you. Tim Hudson missed almost the entire first month of the season. Mike Minor was a disaster in the first half of the season. Jair Jurrjens has been up and down (mostly down). Brandon Beachy was lost for the season in mid-June when he had an MLB-best 2.00 ERA.
Despite all this, here the Braves are in late August with a respectable 3.62 team ERA. This is thanks in part to the fact that the club has an ERA of an even 3.00 since the All-Star break. The acquisition of Paul Maholm, and the emergence of Kris Medlen and Ben Sheets have surely helped.
Compared to the Red Sox, I'd say the Braves have it pretty good. Roger McDowell deserves as much credit as he can get.
And yes, he deserves to keep his job too.
Injuries are largely to blame for Boston's poor showing this season. It played virtually the entire first half without Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, two-thirds of its starting outfield. Cody Ross also spent some time on the DL, as did Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Sweeney and, well, pretty much everyone on the roster.
In July, just when it seemed like things were finally coming together, the Red Sox lost David Ortiz. It's now looking like his injury was the straw that broke the camel's back.
But injuries aren't the only problem the Red Sox have had to deal with this season. They've had to fight through poor performances from several of their star players.
Lester and Beckett come to mind as the two foremost offenders. Lester won 15 games with an ERA in the mid-3.00s last season, and this season, he's won only seven games with an ERA over 5.00. Beckett finished last season with an ERA under 3.00, and this season, he also has an ERA over 5.00.
Though he's really come around in the last couple months, Adrian Gonzalez was a huge disappointment earlier in the season. On June 19, he was sitting on a mere .257 batting average, a .398 slugging percentage and only five home runs.
Ellsbury can't be blamed for getting hurt early in the season, but he's looked nothing like the player who finished second in the AL MVP voting in 2011. He's hitting only .258 with a .656 OPS since his return.
The Braves have had to deal with some inconsistencies from their star players this season (ahem, Brian McCann). But generally, their star players have done just fine.
Michael Bourn is having a career year. Jason Heyward's sophomore slump is a distant memory. Freddie Freeman is producing at right around the same level he was in 2011. Dan Uggla is technically having a better season this year than he did in 2011. Craig Kimbrel is still a beast.
And of course, there's Chipper Jones. He's hitting over .300, and he's gone yicketty 13 times with 54 RBI in 18 games. The old man can still play.
Not shaking up the roster was clearly a good idea.
I know, I know. The title of this slide may have you thinking, "Wait a second, didn't the Braves open the season with a four-game losing streak?"
Yes they did, but they then proceeded to win five in a row and 10 out of their next 11. Coincidentally, this hot stretch started as soon as Chipper Jones returned to the lineup.
The Braves went on to go 14-9 in the month of April, and they finished the month just a half-game out of first in the NL East.
The Red Sox, on the other hand...
Boston started the season with a soul-crushing sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, and it went on to lose 10 of its first 14 games overall. It needed to win seven out of eight in order to break even at 11-11 at the end of April.
It finished April in last place in the AL East, and it didn't climb out of the cellar until a few weeks later.
A slow start was the last thing either club wanted to have happen after the events of September. The Braves managed to avoid a slow start, and that allowed them to look forward rather than back. Despite hitting a couple rough patches in April and a very rough patch in May (remember their eight-game skid?), they at least managed to stay safely over the .500 mark right up until the All-Star break.
The Red Sox went into the break with an even .500 record at 43-43, and it turns out that was the high-water mark for this club. They're six games under .500 in the second half.
This is probably where the Red Sox were destined to be all along, but they certainly didn't do themselves any favors by digging themselves into a hole before the season got into nitty-gritty territory. They gave themselves an uphill climb to tackle.
As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
That's precisely what the Braves have done since the All-Star break, posting a 25-14 record in 39 games. This is with their recent four-game skid mixed in, which gives you an idea of how tremendously awesome the Braves were this time last week.
The Braves have beat up on some pretty bad teams in order to earn this record, to be sure, but that's more than you can say about the Red Sox. They haven't been capable of beating anybody in recent weeks.
Case in point, the last few weeks have seen the Red Sox get swept by the Blue Jays, lose three out of four to the Twins, split a four-game series against the Indians, lose two out of three to the Orioles and two straight to the previously skidding Angels.
In all, the Red Sox have already lost 14 games in August. Their previous season-high for losses in a month coming into August was 14 games.
Yeah, they'll beat that.
Keep in mind that the Red Sox were supposed to be going on a run right around now. In fact, the team was banking on it, and they seemed to sincerely believe that they were fully capable of making a run.
So much for that. Crunch time has crunched the Red Sox, probably for good.
You may have thought somewhere along the line that we might be comparing apples to oranges here. The Red Sox and Braves are two entirely different teams in two entirely different situations, right?
Yes, it's true. Above all, what must be noted is that the Braves have had it easier.
The NL East is not the toughest division in baseball. The Phillies were a complete wreck in the first half of the season. The Marlins have been a wreck every month except May. The Mets have been atrocious ever since the beginning of July.
The Braves have padded their record by abusing these three teams. They're 9-3 against both the Phillies and the Marlins and 7-5 against the Mets.
The Braves have beat up on teams outside the NL East too. All told, the Braves are 44-21 against teams that had records under .500 at the time they played them, with a 3.28 ERA and a collective .764 OPS.
By comparison, the Braves are 27-32 against teams that were .500 or better at the time, with a 3.99 ERA and a collective .687 OPS.
The Red Sox haven't had the luxury of playing so many poor teams. The American League is as deep as it's been in some time this season, and the AL East has been one of the strongest divisions in baseball all season long.
It's no accident that the Red Sox are 20-28 against AL East teams, not to mention 7-15 against teams from the AL West, another very deep division.
The Red Sox only have a winning record against the AL Central, the weakest of the AL's three divisions. They also went 11-7 in interleague play, which included a series victory against the Braves.
This is not to say that the Red Sox would have a winning record if they played in the NL East instead of the AL East. It just is what it is. And what it is, essentially, is the luck of the draw.
The Boston media had a field day with the Red Sox after the team's collapse in 2011. There were a lot of negative storylines to go around, which is never a bad thing in a business that favors bad news over good news.
Thanks in large part to the organization's own bumbling, the media never really got off the Red Sox's back.
Neither did the fans, for that matter. The Red Sox may as well have been a drunk in a set of stocks in an old-timey village. They were there to be ridiculed and shamed.
The Red Sox still haven't shaken the perception people have of them, and for good reason. They played awful baseball earlier in the season, and they haven't quit generating headline fodder for the Boston media. The national media has gotten in on the fun as well (Jeff Passan's recent story comes to mind).
You better believe that all the negative attention has made an impact on the day-to-day life of Boston's players and coaches. David Ortiz said it best back in June when he told CSNNE.com and other media outlets that there was "too much [bleep]" going on and that Boston was "becoming the [bleep]hole it used to be."
The best part: "This is baseball, man. It seems like everything that goes on around here is like one of those Congress decisions that will affect the whole nation. It ain't like that, man."
This is yet another area where the Braves have it easier. The Atlanta media has given the Braves some guff here and there, but there isn't an everlasting witch hunt in Atlanta like the one in Boston.
It helps that there are positive things to talk about on a daily basis concerning the Braves, most notably Chipper Jones' farewell tour. Other things that come to mind are Ben Sheets' career revival and Andrelton Simmons' rise to prominence before he got hurt.
There's drama in Atlanta too, to be sure, but nobody in the Braves clubhouse is saying there's too much of it.
I'm also fairly certain nobody has called Atlanta a "[bleep]hole" either.
The list of difficulties the Red Sox have had to endure this season includes injuries, underperforming star players, an excess of drama, a tough schedule and so on and so forth.
These are explanations for their poor showing this season, but they're not excuses. After all, the New York Yankees have had to deal with pretty much the exact same list of difficulties, and they've still managed to be one of the best teams in baseball anyway. They've found a way to fight through the hard times.
So have the Braves. They haven't had the same kind injury troubles as the Red Sox, and they haven't had to deal with nearly as much negativity, but it's not like they haven't had injuries, and it's not like nobody has dared to criticize them this season.
They are where they are because they've just kept playing baseball, and because unsung heroes like Sheets, Maholm, Medlen and whoever else have stepped up and helped keep the ship afloat.
That's one thing that can be said about the Braves that can't be said about the Red Sox: The Braves are all in this thing together. To boot, they still have their sights set higher than the wild card.
Take what Chipper Jones said after the Braves beat the first-place Nationals on Wednesday night.
“There’s nobody giving up in here," he said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "We still have our sights set on the division. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re not just going to concede it to them."
We've heard various members of the Red Sox say stuff like this throughout the course of the season as well. The difference between them and the Braves is that the Red Sox have had a very hard time translating their talk of success into actual success out on the field.
It's like last September never really ended for the Red Sox. For the Braves, it's a distant memory at this point.
For the Red Sox, a wag of the finger. For the Braves, a tip of the cap.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.