1982 was the year the wheels came off for the New York Yankees. Following a string of eight straight seasons of .500 or better which included four pennants and two World Championships, the Yankees lost more than half of their games and did not make it back to the post-season until 1996. This was the longest such period in Yankee history since they acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. 2010 may turn out to be the year the wheels finally come off for the Red Sox.
It is unlikely that 2010 will cause such long term damage to the Red Sox, because the Yankees were extremely badly run for several years after 1982. Nonetheless, there are some interesting similarities between those 1982 Yankees and these 2010 Red Sox. The first is that both teams embraced new philosophies during these years. In 1982, the Yankees responded to the early 1980s stolen base craze by acquiring Dave Collins and Ken Griffey, both speedy outfielders. Collins, however, was asked to play first base for his new team. Similarly, the Red Sox have made defense the center of their new strategy for 2010. Second, age began to catch up with those 1982 Yankees, and has done the same for the 2010 Red Sox. Third, pitching was a relative weak link for those 1982 Yankees, which may also prove to be the case with the 2010 Red Sox.
Ken Griffey and Dave Collins replaced aging sluggers Reggie Jackson and Bob Watson in the Yankee lineup. Watson and Jackson were clearly on the downside of their careers at this point. Watson had slugged .385 with six home runs in the strike shortened 1981. Jackson had been somewhat better hitting fifteen home runs and slugging .438 in 1981. These bad years suggested that it was time for the Yankees to part ways with both these 35 year old sluggers. However, replacing them with Collins and Griffey, who had combined for five home runs in 1981 made little sense, especially as the team already was strong at the top of the order with Willie Randolph and Jerry Mumphrey.
The Red Sox decision to replace the potent bats of Jason Bay and Mike Lowell, who is now a part time player for Boston, with two players Mark Cameron and Adrian Beltre, who are weaker hitters but better fielders is a similar strategic shift to what the Yankees did in 1982; and it has led to similar results. Both teams talked themselves into believing their new approach made sense, in spite of ample reason to believe otherwise.
The 1982 Yankees were, despite their belief in speed, an old team as players who had played important roles in recent pennant winning teams were slowing down. Poor seasons by Graig Nettles, Bobby Murcer, Ron Guidry and Tommy John were at least partially due to age. Similarly, key Red Sox in their 30s are currently struggling to be healthy and effective including David Ortiz and Mark Cameron.
The 1982 Yankees got almost uniformly off years from their pitchers. Guidry, John, Dave Righetti and even Goose Gossage pitched worse than they had the previous year. The Yankees led the league in ERA in 1981, but finished seventh in 1982 which put even more pressure on a weak offense. A similar dynamic is occurring in Boston in 2010. Jon Lester, John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all having off years. The Red Sox are currently 13th in the league in ERA. Last year they were seventh in ERA.
The Red Sox may turn their season around and make the post-season, but a 80-88 win season and a third place finish is more likely. If they don’t start playing better, fourth place and winning percentage of less than .500 is possible. Even if this happens, the Red Sox will almost certainly avoid a panic attack similar to the one which devastated the Yankees beginning following the 1982 season during which they traded away prospects like Fred McGriff while continuing to spin their wheels by free agent signings which often made sense as standalone moves, but rarely fit into a clear strategy. Poor judgment and a win now approach led to a very disappointing decade for the Yankees in the 1980s. These Red Sox seem too smart for that, but that notion will be tested by how Theo Epstein and the rest of the Red Sox front office responds if 2010 continues to be a bad year for the Red Sox.