Monday, August 19, 2019
Books: "Homegrown" On The Red Sox 2018 Championship Team
Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up
By Alex Speier
William Morrow; hardcover, $27.99; e-Book, $14.99
The 2018 Boston Red Sox are one of the greatest teams in baseball history, as they won 108 games in the regular season, the most in their franchise's history before they went on to win their fourth World Championship in 15 seasons.
In the new book, Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up, Alex Speier, a reporter for the Boston Globe, tells the dramatic story of the assembly and ascendancy of their remarkable young core.
Speier looks at the challenging and sometimes painful transition over several years from a title won in 2013 on the strength of talented veterans to a different roster-building model that was built around young, homegrown stars.
The Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, and Speier writes of the night they clinched it, "As members of the Red Sox converged on the night of October 28, 2018, it seemed almost immediately necessary to look beyond the mere fact of what they'd just accomplished in search of context and meaning. Somehow, 'champions' seemed inadequately understated in describing the exploits of a juggernaut.
"With a franchise-record 108 wins in the regular season and an unrelenting blitz through three postseason series in October during which Boston won eleven of fourteen games - losing just one game each to the Yankees in the American League Division Series, the Astros in the American League Championship Series, and the Dodgers in the World Series - the 2018 Red Sox stood as a twenty-first century baseball leviathan. Only one team in baseball history, the 1998 Yankees, finished a championship season with more victories than the 119 accumulated in the regular season and playoffs by this Red Sox team.
"Yet the magnitude of the accomplishment was not foremost on the mind of Mookie Betts as he approached the growing celebration in the middle of the field. Instead, as the twenty-six-year-old face of the franchise approached the throng, a single adverb accompanied him.
"'Finally,' Betts thought.
"For Betts and many of his teammates, the championship represented not just the culmination of a single great season but of a far more textured history - and one that had been anything but joyous.
"Roughly five years before he experienced the game's pinnacle, Betts had been so discouraged by the undistinguished start of his professional career that he'd contemplated quitting the sport altogether. Alongside Xander Bogaerts - 'really like a twin brother,' Betts said of a player who'd been born four days before him - he'd been part of two of the worst seasons in modern Red Sox history, including one where he felt so unwelcomed in the big leagues that at one point he was relieved for his devotion to the minors.
"He'd spent time feeling like the world was pitting him against his career-long friend, Jackie Bradley, Jr., making their futures a competition only one could win. And even when he'd experienced both individual and team success in the 2016 and 2017 season, those years ended in disappointment, with early dismissals from the playoffs.
"That past played into the swiftness of that Southern California night, as Betts converged with fellow 2011 draftee Bradley and 2015 first-rounder Andrew Benintendi behind the infield dirt before taking off on the weightless spring to the infield scrum.
"There, they encountered Bogaerts, the twenty-six-year-old shortstop who'd been int he Red Sox organization since signing out of Aruba in 2009, and who represented the lone active holdover from the team's previous championship in 2013. Third baseman Rafael Devers, signed out of the Dominican Republic as a sixteen-year-old in 2013 and who had turned twenty-two years old during the World Series, ran over from his position to join the growing mob.
"Those six players represented a remarkable confluence. The Red Sox became the first American League team since the 2984 Tigers with at least six homegrown players under thirty years old on the field or in the lineup at the moment that they clinched."
Speier has covered these players since the dawn of their professional careers, as they rose through the minor leagues to become the heart of this historic championship team.
There also is a never-before-reported window into the inner workings of the Red Sox braintrust over the last decade, as personnel control passed from Theo Epstein to Ben Cherington to Dave Dombrowski. There is a look at the inner workings of talent identification and scouting, and how minor league prospects are successfully "developed."
The reader is introduced to the area scouts, follow them as they travel around the U.S. in search of the next Betts or Benintendi, watch in the draft room as they fight for "their guys," with their own professional reputations at stake. This is part of a two-step process that Steier dramatizes in rich detail, as they have to decide who to draft and then the long process to sign them.
Unlike other homegrown teams like the Astros and Cubs, who could engage in long-term gut renovations, the Red Sox faced a tougher mandate: cultivate a winner built around a young core while remaining successful in the short term, a uniquely challenging dual-track approach.
One key part in any formation of a team is for a front office to know when to add the final piece in the last stage. For the 2018 Red Sox, that was Manager Alex Cora, who replaced John Farrell, who quarreled with Dombrowski the year before; and J.D. Martinez, their long-awaited slugger to fill the void left by David Ortiz, who retired in 2016.
Speier writes, "Cora sought a team that would, in his parlance, 'do damage' when pitchers made mistakes in the zone. Jumping on first pitches and driving them in the air was part of that strategy. To fully implement, he knew he needed fresh hitting instructors.
"Tim Hyers had been the Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator between 2013 and 2015 before going to the Dodgers for the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. He had the trust of the players from his prior relationships with them, yet he had a new message to offer after his time in the data-driven Dodgers organization. Hyers worked with players - most notably Betts - to swing through the ball. Instead of a direct path of the bat down to the point of contact with the ball, he encouraged Red Sox hitters to swing on the plane of the pitch with an uppercut that had been espoused a half century earlier by Red Sox legend Ted Williams but that, puzzlingly, hadn't taken hold until the last few years.
"In 2017, the Red Sox had lagged behind the game's Launch Angle Revolution. One of the team's coaches, in fact, showed little love for what he referred to as 'that launch angle shit,' believing that the foundation of hitting remained an all-fields, line-drive approach.
"The team's hardest-hit balls that season tended to result in hard grounders or low line drives - good, perhaps, for singles and doubles, less so for home runs. Under Cora and Hyers, the Sox wanted more of those long fly balls that cleared the fences.
"In the middle of spring trailing, that pursuit was aided by the addition of a player who preached the gospel of Launch Angle.
"In 2013, J.D. Martinez had seen a once-promising professional career sputter. Just a 20th-round pick in 2009, he had dominated the minors and made the Astros' big league club in two years. But after initial success in the majors, he'd settled into mediocrity and didn't know why. There was no one on the Astros - a team committed to a teardown-rebuild process - to help provide answers.
"'I never had an older veteran player to talk to,' said Martinez. 'I remember just searching for answers, searching for ideas.'
"Finally, Astros hitting coach John Mallee offered a blunt appraisal. Martinez's swing wasn't going to allow him to be an impact player in the big leagues. He was chopping down at the ball - the direct path that had been taught for generations, but that almost guaranteed groundballs at a time when pitchers were pounding the bottom of the strike zone with fastballs thrown ever harder...
"He overhauled his swing both physically and philosophically. But the Astros failed to appreciate the metamorphosis. Houston gave him just eighteen plate appearances in spring training in 2014 and released him shortly before the end of camp. Martinez quickly signed a minor league deal with the Tigers, and days after his release, in a Triple-A game, he launched three homers against an Astros minor league squad - one to left-center, one to center, and one to right-center. Over the next four years, Houston would realize the magnitude of its mistake, as Martinez established himself as one of the game's top hitters with the Tigers, and after a mid-2017 trade, the Diamondbacks, posting a .300 average with a .362 on-base percentage,and .574 slugging mark while walloping 40 homers per 162 games.
"The Red Sox viewed him as the preeminent offensive player on the free-agent market after the 2017 season, a presence who could fill the Ortiz-sized void that had opened in the middle of the order the previous year. Martinez represented an established run producer who could allow the younger Red Sox to be comfortable in their own abilities rather than feeling a need to compensate for the absence of their longtime lineup cornerstone. Yet after Martinez reached agreement on a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox shortly after the start of spring training, it soon became apparent that his impact would not be limited to what he did in the batter's box. His reputation as a self-created star and student of hitting preceded him.
"To his new Red Sox teammates, Martinez represented evidence that players had untapped abilities that they might be able to harness with the right approach and hard work. (Once asked to name his favorite superhero, Martinez identified Iron Man. Why? 'Self made,' he said.) Throughout spring training, players frequently stopped at his locker and got into their batting stances, exchanging notes and ideas. Martinez had rued now having veterans to ask advice from early in his career. Now he became that veteran, and delighted in sharing his insights."
Homegrown is one of the most fascinating books on the operations of a team in this era of baseball and how every move counts.