The Most Disappointing Season For…The Boston Red Sox
The 1987 Boston Red Sox
Record: 78-84 (5th AL East, 8th out of 14 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 83-79
Runs Scored: 842 (4th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 825 (11th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 95-66
Manager: John McNamara
Hype: The ball went through Buckner’s legs, yes, but it’s basically the same team that went to the Series with a couple of new additions. There’s no reason not to repeat and avenge Buckner!
The Gory Details: Yes, all of Boston mourned when Bill Buckner made that critical error in Game Six of the 1987 World Series. Yes, Buckner, Don Baylor, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans were on the wrong side of 30.The Red Sox weren’t totally dependent on those guys, though. They had Wade Boggs, Rich Gedman and, most importantly, the anchors of their rotation – Roger Clemens, Oil Can Boyd and Bruce Hurst. That trio went 53-22 in 1986 and Clemens and Hurst both had ERA’s under 3.00, which is pretty difficult to do playing half of your games in Fenway (especially for a lefty like Hurst).
Besides, Rice and Evans weren’t THAT old. Rice had 110 RBI and an OPS+ of 137 at age 33. Evans had power and on base skills AND was still a plus defender in right field. They were the second and third best position players for the Sox the year before.
Boston had some scrappy youngsters as well in Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks and Todd Benzinger – the potential outfield of the future and ready to contribute now. Burks and Benzinger would start the season in Pawtucket, ready for any injury or slump that may befall the Red Sox’ veterans.
Yet the first sign of trouble appeared in the off-season. Gedman, the team’s best catcher, was a free agent, and thanks to collusion among baseball’s owners, no one made him an offer. Under the rules at the time, the Red Sox couldn’t sign him until May 1st, and they wanted him back.
But at the beginning of the year, they had to live with Marc Sullivan and raw rookie Danny Sheaffer behind the plate. Sheaffer had hit .340 at Pawtucket in 1986. Sullivan? Well, his dad was Haywood Sullivan, a former Red Sox bonus baby who would become CEO and COO of the team (the ownership struggles of the Red Sox during the 70’s and 80’s would make a great movie). Marc was drafted and promoted through the Boston chain as a favor to his father (allegedly).
Sullivan The Younger hit a whopping .213 in AA and .210 in AAA but still made the club to stay in 1985. In 1986 his OPS+ was 41 and he had more strikeouts than hits.
The second sign of trouble was an arm injury to Boyd. He hurt his shoulder in the spring, and would start the season on the DL.
The final sign of trouble was Clemens. Being a young player, it was traditional (and it still is for the most part except for exceptional talent) for the players not eligible for arbitration or free agency to take what the owners gave you. This was definitely the case in 1986. Clemens wasn’t having that.
He already was making way over the minimum salary ($340,000 as opposed to about $65,000) but for a 24-4 record, he didn’t think it was enough. So he walked out of camp.
What a mess. Missing Gedman and replacing him with a bush leaguer is one thing, missing a rotation starter for a while is another. Teams can manage those bumps for a while. But missing Clemens was not only bad for the Red Sox, it was bad for baseball. Clemens was out for 29 days, not returning to camp until it was close to opening day, and not until Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had to intervene.
The problem is he didn’t come back until April 5. April 6 was the Sox opener, in Milwaukee. Even though Clemens said he was ready to go, manager John McNamara decided to wait. He also wanted to hold Bruce Hurst back for Opening Day at Fenway. Boyd was hurt. So who took the mound for Boston as they defended their AL title?
Stanley had been a starter, a long man, a middle man and a closer. Last season he led the Sox in saves with 16, but had a 4.37 ERA and a WHIP of 1.59 and was replaced as closer by Calvin Schiraldi. For a reliever, that’s subpar. He did have an excellent World Series, but was unfortunately on the mound when the Buckner thing happened.
He also threw the wild pitch that tied the game right before Mookie Wilson hit that fateful ground ball.
Stanley started just one game in 1986, a 6-5 loss at Kansas City in the second game of a double header in August. But he was tapped for Opening Day anyway, followed up by Al Nipper and Jeff Sellers. Not exactly the cream of the crop.
Needless to say, the Red Sox were swept out of Milwaukee, the final game being a 12-11 slugfest that saw Sellers and Rob Woodward get rocked, and Rob Deer blasting two home runs off of Woodward.
Yet opening day in Boston saw Hurst spin a two-hit shutout against Toronto. Clemens was next up, and he showed his rust giving up four runs in four innings. The Jays then body slammed Steve Crawford and Wes Gardner for seven more runs and the final was an 11-1 laugher for the Canadians.
The Sox won the next three games in a row, then split a series at Toronto. Returning home against the Royals, Hurst was clobbered for eight runs in 5 2/3, including a two run shot from Larry Owen (Larry Owen???). The 10-2 loss put the Red Sox at 6-7, in sixth place. Milwaukee had started the year by winning its first 13 games in a row, so Boston was already seven games behind.
The team doddered through April. The bullpen was quite shaky, with Schiraldi struggling as the closer and Gardner, Woodward, Joe Sambito and Steve Crawford not much help either. The offense was also having issues, with Rice, Buckner and post-season hero Dave Henderson slumping.
Boston called up Burks in late April, made Henderson a utilty outfielder, and had Greenwell spell Rice in left to try to get everyone back on track.
May 1st rolled around and Gedman was back. Clemens was back to his self again. They were 9 ½ out of first, but that was only because the Brewers were 18-3. They’d come back to the pack and Boston would be ready to pounce.
Stanley, after a decent start in the rotation, was forced to pitch into the 10th against the White Sox and then blew apart in his next start, giving up eight runs. He was off and on all year after that -mostly off.
Sellers’ ERA was in the Boeing range, and he was demoted after a lackluster relief appearance. Nipper was up and down, but imploded as well against the White Sox giving up nine in just 1 1/3 innings. Schiraldi lost his spot as bullpen stopper, replaced by Gardner.
The bright spots were Boggs, who had hit nine home runs already by May 31. His previous SEASON high was eight. Evans was also having a great season, drawing walks and hitting for power, plus his average was .297, almost 40 points higher than 1986.
Meanwhile, others were struggling. Gedman, who really didn’t have spring training, was lost at the plate. Baylor’s average slipped to .222, though he still drew walks. Buckner was hitting under .250, not walking, and had just a .307 slugging percentage. Plus some fans were not very supportive of him after his series miscue.
Then there was Rice. Normally, he was feared. But he started in a horrific slump and was hitting just .177 on May 23. He rose that almost 100 points in eight games, but even then he was slugging under .400.
Boston was nine games behind on June 1st. Milwaukee had come back to the pack in a hurry, but there were still five other teams ahead of them. A move had to be made now in the standings. Their pitching needed to get better, pronto. John Leister replaced Sellers in the rotation, but the rookie was getting murdered.
The good news was that Boyd was close to returning. General Manager Lou Gorman was upset that his rehab was taking too long, and Oil Can may have been a little lackadaisical in getting back, but he was going to rehab in Pawtucket and join the rotation soon. Stanley could then move back to then pen and stabilize that.
The offense started to crank up, but the Red Sox were still streaky. They won three on the road, then lost three of four to Detroit at home. They swept Baltimore, but got swept by Detroit on the road and lost two of three to the woebegone Indians. Finally, the cranked out a five game winning streak over the Yankees and Brewers, including a win in Boyd’s season debut.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Clemens, of all people, got rocked by the Yanks. After taking a 9-0 lead against Tommy John and Rich Bordi, Clemens and Crawford gave up 11 runs in the third inning, Benzinger, just recently called up, tied the game in the fourth. It remained 11-all until the 10th when Wayne Tolleson singled to score Mike Pagliarulo.
But the Sox won five of the next seven and after the games of July 3rd were one game under .500. Could they sustain this hot streak and make a comeback?
A six game losing streak put paid to that notion, with the final game of that an 11-5 pasting by the Mariners when Hurst and Gardner combined to give up seven runs in the seventh.
The Red Sox were 41-47 at the All-Star break and 13 ½ games out. It was time to cut bait.
Knowing that Burks, Greenwell and Benzinger were up and playing well, Gorman wanted to give them all the opportunities to succeed and also give chances to other youngsters in Pawtucket. So he tried to wheel and deal players, but found few takers for his older players like Buckner and Baylor. So Gorman released Buckner in late July, even though his average went up to .273. But his lack of power, speed, patience and defense hurt the club more than his singles helped. The Angels soon picked him up.
Buckern’s place on the roster was taken by Sam Horn. Horn was a born DH, so Evans became the regular first baseman, Benzinger took over in right, and Greenwell spotted Rice in left for the most part. Baylor then platooned with Horn. That settled the offense down some.
Pitching, though, was a pain. Boyd was still struggling with his shoulder and his velocity was way down. He didn’t get out of the first inning on July 22nd, lasted just four innings his next start, and was shut down for the season. Nipper, Sellers and Stanley were throwing batting practice for the most part. The bullpen was awful. Schiraldi, Gardner and Crawford were giving up home runs left and right. .
The final straw came against Toronto on the 27th. Gedman was still struggling, at the plate, and his season ended with a torn thumb ligament. John Marzano replaced him, but now over half of their lineup were rookies. That’s not what the faithful expected. But the youth did rally the troops a bit – the Red Sox went 30-30 over the last two months to finish 78-84. Gorman dealt away Baylor and Henderson at the August deadline so they could join potential playoff teams, putting them out of their misery.
Pitching was still pathetic. Sambito lost it and gave up runs by the barrel. Hurst slumped over the final two months and jacked his ERA up a point and a half. Only Clemens, the holdout, finished solid, with a 2.97 ERA, twenty wins, and an ERA+ of 154. Take away him, and the Red Sox pitchers had an ERA of 5.20. The bullpen was especially awful, with the relievers only saving 16 games with 12 holds and 12 blown saves.
Boston used just 13 pitchers all year, with everyone struggling and Boyd injured, you’d think they would have called up someone, ANYONE, to help. But Pawtucket was bereft of pitching talent as well and no one at New Britain was ready for the show.
The Red Sox had bad injury luck, bad pitching and bad seasons from key components. They shook off their doldrums and won the division in 1988, though, after a managerial change in mid-season and some key acquisitions. Definitely, the time Burks, Greenwell and Benzinger spent in the majors paid off for them the next season, which is about all the good that came out of 1987.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: 1987 was a freaky offensive year. The ball may have been juiced. Clemens’ sub-3.00 ERA was sensational, and his WAR was 9.4. Boggs hit 24 home runs, had a .461 OBP and an OPS of 1.049. That was good for 8.3 WAR. Evans had a 4.8 WAR as well, so you’d think with three players like that they’d be set. Welp…
Honorable Mention Team: After a miserable 2012, the Red Sox won it all in 2013. Nothing went right in 2014. They lost way too many man-games due to injuries. Some players declined rapidly, they kept trying to forece feed Will Middlebrooks as a third baseman, and counting on Grady Sizemore to replace Jacoby Ellsbury was a mistake. Add big-time rotation woes and you have a recipe for last place.
Bad Blast from the Past: Boston won the 1918 World Series behind some guy named Ruth…what was his name? Oh, yeah, and great pitching as well from Carl Mays, Bullet Joe Bush and Sad Sam Jones, and this Ruth fellow. Harry Hooper also added about 5 WAR as well. Ruth had an ungodly OPS+ of 217 in 1919, but Bush was out with arm trouble, Jones declined rapidly, Mays pitched in bad luck, and Hooper couldn’t get it going either. Boston finished 66-71 and soon Ruth was a Yankee.