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Sabermetrics or Steroids? The Boston Red Sox Championship Teams

by Photo of Andrew Lontos

Was it Moneyball, PED’s, or both, that led to two championships in Beantown?

Sabermetrics or Steroids? The Boston Red Sox Championship Teams

With the recent release of Moneyball starring Brad Pitt, many have discussed the notion that the Red Sox have mastered the art of sabermetrics and that this was directly responsible for their championship seasons in 2004 and 2007. There is no doubt that Boston and Bill James have utilized this strategy and have been successful in the last decade. But while giving them credit for their progressive thinking, are we forgetting about the most powerful, game-changing, force that puts the "enhance" in "performance enhancing?"

Of course, I'm talking about needles with juice. Pills. Creams. Or any other name or method you (or Congress) would like to consider PEDs.

I'm not going to get into a moral debate about steroids. You'd consider me a steroid apologist if I were sitting with you and Bill Simmons at a bar in south Boston. And of course I'd be buying.

But that deserves its own article. I'm also not naive enough to believe that the Red Sox were the only, or one of just the few, organizations to employ steroid users. That would be ridiculous; let's not forget the Yankees' good ol' boys from Texas: Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte or everyone's favorite boo buddy Alex Rodriguez. Steroid use was (is?) rampant in Major League Baseball to the point that the government is spending your tax dollars on trying to get to the bottom of it.                    

What do you remember about the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox teams? Do you think of undervalued utility men and relievers like Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, or Mike Timlin? Sure, you can call Beckett and Schilling to the stand and stick your chest out about that deal being championship-level transactions, but you need bats to win too. You also must think of Johnny Damon and his idiot band of diamond cowboys. Even before, you have to think of the dominance of massive superstar sluggers David Oritz and Manny Ramirez.

 Look at the numbers. Man, how good were Ortiz and Manny?

Via Sports Illustrated:

David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, a modern, Boston version of Ruth and Gehrig, are dirtied. The sluggers combined for 388 home runs from 2003 through '07, two world championships, and, according to The New York Times, two failed steroid tests-- from the infamous "anonymous" 2003 survey samples, the gift from the players that keeps on giving.

Ortiz was actually undervalued during his time in Minnesota before the Red Sox signed him in 2003. One of the absolute steals of the last half century. And for that, the sabermetricians in Beantown deserve credit. Just look at the numbers. Big Papi drew walks, got on base, and only had one season in which his OPS was below .800 (it was .799 in his shortened 2001 campaign). Of course, he was no stranger to getting on base in Minnesota, his best OPS was .839, yet he only hit his then-career-high 20 home runs once. In Boston (from 2003-2007), his OPS was .961, .983, 1.001, 1.049, and 1.066 and his home run totals were 31, 41, 47, 54, and 35. Quite an improvement. Manny Ramirez was never undervalued; he merely continued his steroid-fueled assault on American League pitchers once he got to Fenway Park.

So, was it just the case that Boston's roided-up stars happened to be better than most teams' and they filled in the rest with solid value options? Or was it that the culture in the Red Sox organization like most of baseball then, was to turn a blind eye with respect to performance-enhancing drugs? Former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni, who played for Boston from 1998-2003, said this about a meeting in their clubhouse:   

Via Deadspin:

No. He spins it and says, 'You know what, if you take steroids and sit on the couch all winter long, you can actually get stronger than someone who works out clean. If you're going to take steroids, one cycle won't hurt you; abusing steroids, it will.'

"He sat there for one hour and told us how to properly use steroids while I'm with the Boston Red Sox, sitting there with the rest of the organization, and after this, I said, 'What the heck was that?'

"And everybody on the team was like, 'What was that?' And the response we got was, 'Well, we know guys are taking it, so we want to make sure they're taking it the right way.' Where did that come from? That didn't come from the Players Association."

Hey, maybe conversations like this took place in 30 locker rooms, in fact, I'm willing to wager it did. But if Boston was one of the few teams ahead of the curve regarding sabermetrics, is it crazy to believe that they were ahead of the game with PEDs as well? Perhaps they recognized the value of having a team loaded with guys who were willing to gain a competitive advantage; or they realized that it in order to be elite in the 2000s, acquiring players like that was a necessity. By the way, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sounds smart to me. After all, if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying, right? With the amount of fame and fortune on the line - and no one policing it for years- this even seems like a probable scenario, rather than just a mere possibility. 

They did have to beat the Yankees after all. Actually, forget them, how many prescriptions does it take to make a curse go away? 

Plus, pictures like this exist.

What has the Red Sox philosophy been in recent years? From Sons of Samhorn, Boston has struggled to find undervalued players recently instead attempting a more capitalistic approach:

The Red Sox don't seem to be looking for, or hitting on value pick ups lately. Since 2005 they signed Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, David Wells, Wade Miller, Matt Mantei. 2006 with Mark Loretta, Coco Crisp, Alex Gonzalez, Julian Tavarez. In 2007 Julio Lugo, JD Drew, Hideki Okajima. The list goes on. The Sox don't seem to be finding much value in free agents, waivers or trades anymore. Sure, there are a few hits, such as Okajima, and you could even add Salty to the list. But why aren't the Sox able to find more overlooked players? Did Moneyball just make it harder? Are front offices smarter now? Is it not possible to find these deals other teams overlooked? Sure, the Red Sox are getting good value on their homegrown stars. Pedroia, Ellsbury, Papelbon, Youk, Lester, and Buchholz have provided huge value but it seems we lost the ability to find overlooked and undervalued players. 

Why?

It may be true that executives in every front office have read Moneyball and that makes it harder to find hidden gems. But that's also the easy answer and I doubt Billy Beane would have allowed the book to be written if it was going to allow everyone to use the secret recipe effectively. Boston's barrage of overvalued signings since 2005 coincide nicely with Major League Baseball's implementation of a stricter drug testing policy. On November 15, 2005, an agreement was reached that increased the penalties for steroid use: 50 games for the first offense, 100 games for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third. So their shrewd front office started making not-so-wise moves once the use of PEDs resulted in real, harsh consequences? 

Look, good moves were made that had nothing to do with computers or clubhouse attendants. Again, full marks for getting Ortiz and the aces with World Series pedigrees in in uniform. Championship teams are all going to have fond stories to tell about various acquisitions. But there is a clear change in philosophy that reeks more than the bottom of the Charles River.  

Maybe the rest of the league did learn the tricks in Moneyball. Perhaps the Red Sox were ahead of the game when it came to sabermetrics and steroids, but by now both of those advantages are gone. The secrets were published and now it's too risky to knowingly acquire a player who used PEDs; the potential 50 game suspension and the media scrutiny makes it a big gamble. It's possible that both sabermetrics and steroids contributed to their success, I just think one had much more to do with it than the other.


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