The 2012 Red Sox lost 93 games, finished dead last in the American League East for the first time since 1992, fired their manager, traded away major pieces from a team that won 90 games the prior season, and, for better or worse, planned to start anew the next season.
Thus far, it's worked. In a big way.
With five weeks left to play in the 2013 season, Boston has a chance to flip, or exceed their record from last year. Yes, in the span of one year, the franchise can go from 69-93 to 93-69 or better.
How did they do it? Well, to be honest, by improving in the three most basic tenets of the game: Hitting, pitching and managing. While the narratives around this Red Sox team point to a culture change and wise offseason spending, that's only a part of the turnaround story. The actual root of improvement was simple.
Here's a look into the details of those seemingly simple improvements.
As a team, the 2012 Red Sox put up a collective slash line of .260/.315/.415. Considering park and league effects, not to mention playing 81 games in Fenway Park, that OPS-plus mark came in at 95. In other words, the Red Sox were a below-average offensive team.
Thus far in 2013, the script has flipped.
With a collective team slash line of .274/.346/.439, the Red Sox are boasting an OPS-plus of 112. While you would assume that those numbers, while good, pale in comparison to the figures put up in their offensive juggernaut days of 2003 and 2004, the totals actually compared quite favorably.
In 2003, Boston had a team OPS-plus mark of 118. That figure fell to 110 in 2004, the year of their first World Series victory in 86 years. Amazingly, when adjusted for the offensive era, the 2012 Red Sox are more productive than the 2004 Red Sox.
Why? Consistency from seven spots in the batting order, and excellence from one.
Outside of a failure to generate much offense or continuity at third base, Boston has received at least average offensive production from regulars at catcher, first base, second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions. By comparison, last season they got below league-average marks from catcher, shortstop and due to the injury plagued season from Jacoby Ellsbury, center field.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the return to dominance from designated hitter David Ortiz.
During an injury plagued 2012, Ortiz was a quietly excellent (.318/.415/.611) 36-year-old slugger, but only played 90 games due to foot issues. When the team collapsed, Ortiz's production was out of sight and out of mind.
This year, after spending the first few weeks of the season on the disabled list in a slow recovery from the 2012 ailments, Ortiz has been amazingly durable, playing in 109 games since mid-April.
In 118 Red Sox games since his return on April 20, Ortiz has started 107 and harassed American League pitching in almost every single one. With a .316/.397/.568 batting line, the Red Sox have been able to pencil in a true star hitting among their consistently good regulars.
In a similar vein to the offensive turnaround, the Red Sox have prevented runs at a much, much better clip in 2013 than 2012.
Last year, the collective staff pitched to a 4.70 ERA, failed to have more than one starter eclipse 190 innings and suffered from a tremendous lack of depth when arms went down on the staff.
This summer, the staff has posted a 3.77 ERA, nearly one full run lower, and made up for a lack of more than one 200-inning arm (once again, the lone representative will be Jon Lester) with reinforcements from both within and outside the organization.
Red Sox rotation in 2012: 48-72, 5.19 ERA. Red Sox rotation in 2013: 53-38, 3.82 ERA.— Richard Justice (@richardjustice) August 27, 2013
As of now, four of the five Red Sox starters (Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy) have season ERA-plus marks of at least 106. In other words, better than average.
If, or when, Clay Buchholz returns from injury, he could replace the only member of the staff, Ryan Dempster, with a below-average ERA-plus, giving Boston five starters down the stretch capable of at least keeping the team in the game on a nightly basis.
With their offense, led by David Ortiz, it's likely enough to hold off Tampa Bay, Baltimore and New York in the American League East.
Last summer, not one of the seven starters that garnered double-digit starts for Boston posted an above-average ERA-plus, including Jon Lester. From Buchholz to Doubront to Josh Beckett to luminaries like Aaron Cook and Daniel Bard, the staff was awful.
Thanks to a return to health and form by John Lackey, trade for Jake Peavy, improvement by Felix Doubront and early season dominance by Buchholz, the staff has made a remarkable turnaround.
Depending on your view on the actual impact and importance of managers in baseball, the John Farrell vs. Bobby Valentine narrative has either been dissected properly or beaten into the ground way, way too much.
As Chad Finn of The Boston Globe showed us when exploring in July, quantifying the 2013 Red Sox in wins and losses if Valentine was the manager isn't an easy task. The culture and product around the Red Sox is much, much better than when Valentine was in charge.
But how much of that has to do with health, production and roster turnaround stemming from last August's deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the other coast?
To be honest, we'll never know.
What is easy to understand: Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach, certainly deserves credit for the way the pitching staff has responded. In dropping their team ERA by nearly a full run, the staff has been one of the most improved units in the sport.
On the flip, Farrell's old team, the Toronto Blue Jays, has seen their team ERA—despite acquiring NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey—in the mid-fours.
John Farrell Hasn't Been Perfect In-Game Manager, But Red Sox Skipper Still Deserves Ton of Credit for Turnaround http://t.co/Wb0qRl3YFx— NESN (@NESN) August 26, 2013
Also easy to see: Boston has played with enthusiasm in 2013 after clearly going through the motions down the stretch with Valentine last summer.
It could be his laid-back approach, as pointed out by MLB.com's Barry Bloom in early June, or just the fact that a new voice, not named Valentine, is giving the edicts now in Fenway.
Either way, a turnaround from worst to (potentially) first deserves recognition.
What's the biggest reason for the success of the 2013 Red Sox?
Yes, you can comment about Shane Victorino's excellent season, Mike Napoli's RBIs and how everything that could go wrong last year actually did, but the biggest reasons behind the Red Sox turn around are rooted in simplicity: They found a way to truly improve in the most basic areas.
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